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Two Definitions of Agility

Two Definitions of Agility


Agility is a confusing area, but two different interpretations have become clear. The first is a fuzzy catch all definition that describes the application of the various practices and technologies etc. that have been implemented by industry since the mid 1980s. These include strategy driven manufacturing, concurrent engineering, virtual enterprises, just-in-time manufacturing, flexible manufacturing, time compression, mass customisation, and several hundred other well know approaches. This is largely how agility is presented in the US especially by academics (see the post-mass production enterprise entry and suggested reading list for more details).

The second definition of agility is much more focused and deals with the problems and needs that industry will experience tomorrow and is therefore part of the notion of a next generation manufacturing enterprise. This alternative, and more interesting and useful definition is concerned with the fragility of current enterprise business practices - for example, the inability of approaches such as concurrent engineering to satisfactorily deal with change, uncertainty and unpredictability arising from several different factors in the business environment.

What follows is a brief outline of what agility really means based on a focused definition - the adaptive enterprise - rather than the fuzzy, catch all definition in popular use (especially in the USA).

Businesses worldwide, both in services and manufacturing, are experiencing a common phenomenon - increasing change, uncertainty and unpredictability in the business environment. And the situation is not going to get any better - in fact it's going to get worse. Large uncertainties and unpredictability are fast becoming the norms of everyday life.

So what's the problem? Simple. Businesses were not designed to cope with large uncertainties and unpredictability. Business practices are grounded on the assumption of certainty and predictability. If things change at all they do so only slowly.

The simple fact of the matter is that, in the emerging business environment, tomorrow's requirements and challenges are unknown and will only become known tomorrow. They cannot be known in advance and planned for! You have to deal with them when they arrive, but today's businesses don't operate on this basis. People want to know what tomorrow will bring so that they can be ready with a response. Businesses don't like surprises. And they don't like surprises because surprises can be dangerous. Unexpected changes can harm a business because enterprises are fragile - they are easily damaged and broken by unexpected and unpredictable changes and events.

So what is an agile enterprise? There is a simple answer to this question - an agile enterprise is one that is not easily damaged and broken by unexpected and unpredictable changes and events. How is this achieved? Answer - by building enterprises that rapidly adapt. Agility therefore means enterprises rapidly adapting to tomorrow's surprises. Conceptually this is what an agile enterprise needs to be able to do - and this is not easy because it requires the development of a whole new set of business practices as well as radical changes across the whole enterprise.

At this point you should now see that agility is not just about speed of response - it is about rapid adaptation. In other words, enterprise elements adapting in response to unexpected and unpredictable changes and events, new opportunities and customer requirements, new technologies and changes to industry structures. By enterprise elements we mean goals and objectives, technology, organisation, and so on. This leads us to the following definition:

"An agile enterprise is a fast moving, adaptable and robust business. It is capable of rapid adaptation in response to unexpected and unpredicted changes and events, market opportunities, and customer requirements. Such a business is founded on processes and structures that facilitate speed, adaptation and robustness and that deliver a coordinated enterprise that is capable of achieving competitive performance in a highly dynamic and unpredictable business environment that is unsuited to current enterprise practices".

The problem with the fuzzy definition of agility in popular use is that it ignores the possibility that the significant changes that have occurred in manufacturing and other industries since the early 1980s may be only a foretaste of what is to come, and that some of the new practices may not be appropriate in the future owing to major discontinuities. Specifically, the problem with this fuzzy definition of agility is that:

1. It largely deals with things already being addressed by industry and which are covered by existing research projects and programmes;

2. People often fail to recognise that there are new issues and items on the agenda;

3. Questions about the future relevance of "current practices" are not addressed.

Fuzzy agility seems largely to be about American industry implementing "current best practices". Focused agility is concerned with what lies beyond "current best practices" - next generation manufacturing - exploring the emerging frontier of solutions to tomorrow's needs and problems.







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