Tag Archives: manufacturing

Manufacturing is not returning to the West

There’s many claims over the last year or so that “manufacturing is returning to the West” and “China’s days as the world’s factory are numbered”{{1}}. These claims are misguided.

[[1]]Vivek Wadhwa (23 July 2012), The End of Chinese Manufacturing and Rebirth of U.S. Industry, Forbes[[1]]

We’ve just reached a time where manual and skilled labour is no longer a major manufacturing cost, causing final assembly to slowly drifting toward the customer base it serves. This shift reduces the length of the supply chain from assembly to your front door resulting in a reduction in turn-around time which, in turn, reduces working capital requirements and allows manufacturers to push product updates through the supply chain faster.

Manufacturing isn’t leaving China and other low cost manufacturing centres. What has changed is that it now makes good sense to manufacture some high value but low volume and bulky products in other major markets, such as the U.S.

The problem with thinking that manufacturing is returning to the first world is the implicit assumption that this also means that the old manufacturing jobs will return. They won’t. They no longer exist. It also ignores that fact that the huge scale of manufacturing in China will help it to grab the lions share of the world manufacturing market for some time to come.

Manufacturing as a manual process

Consider Henry Ford’s assembly line from 1913: a complex, labour intensive process that created a large number of good, blue collar jobs.

566px-Ford_assembly_line_-_1913Source: Public Domain

When we think of manufacturing this is the image we usually have in head. It’s a bit like those train crossing signs that have a caricature of a steam engine on them. It might not be the current reality, but it’s the image we use to understand what’s going on around us.

As transport costs dropped, work moved to lower cost countries

Back in Henry Ford’s day transportation was expensive. Factories were often located close to the markets they served to minimise transport costs, with management struggling to ensure that enough raw materials arrived at the factory to keep it busy. However, the development of railroads, steam ships, and the shipping container network incrementally cut the cost of transport until it cost roughly the same to move a box across the world as it did to move it across the country.

As Marc Levinson points out in his book, The Box{{2}}:

[[2]]Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. iBooks.[[2]]

As transportation costs decline relative to other costs, manufacturers can relocate first domestically, and then internationally, to reduce other costs, which come to loom larger. Globalization, the diffusion of economic activity without regard for national boundaries, is the logical end point of this process. As transport costs fall to extremely low levels, producers move from high-wage to low-wage countries, eventually causing wage levels in all countries to converge. These geographic shifts can occur quickly and suddenly, leaving long-standing industrial infrastructure underutilized or abandoned as economic activity moves on.

This is the shift we’re thinking of when we consider off-shore manufacturing: China as the source of cheap (and fairly unskilled labour).

Today, manufacturing is not a manual process

Apple released an interesting video the other day{{3}}. It shows the manufacturing process for the new Mac Pro.

[[3]]Greg Koenig (22 October 2013), How Apple makes the Mac ProAtomic Delights[[3]]

SourceApple

What’s interesting about this process is how few people are involved.

Manufacturing has changed a lot in the last few decades. What was once dominated by manual labour is now an automated and highly efficient process. Machines have replaced people. We can see this in many of the factories that are returning to the West: they’re all highly efficient, highly automated, capital intensive operations that require very little manual or skilled labour.

7395855880_053e6daede_cSource: Steve Jurvetson

Machines, however, have yet to replace engineers

While capital has won over manual and skilled labour, that same is not true for engineers: knowledge workers.

As Roger Martin found in his research for a recent HBR article{{4}}:

[[4]]Roger L. Martin (October 2013), Rethinking the Decision Factory, Harvard Business Review[[4]]

I vividly remember working with the CEO of one of North America’s largest bread manufacturers in 1990–1991. He had just replaced a labor-intensive and antiquated plant with the most advanced bread bakery on the continent. He proudly told me that the new computerized ovens and packaging machinery had reduced direct labor costs by 60%. But meanwhile, a throng of new and expensive knowledge workers had been added at both the head office and the plant—engineers, computer technicians, and managers—to take care of the sophisticated computer systems and state-of-the-art equipment. The new plant wasn’t quite the unalloyed good that it appeared at first sight. Variable costs of manual labor fell, but the fixed cost of knowledge workers rose, making it critical to keep capacity utilization high—which was possible in some years but not in others.

While the West has been worried about losing it manufacturing capability, many of the off-shore manufacturing destinations have been investing in education. China, for example, now has a huge engineering workforce that companies can draw own to sort out their manufacturing problems.

It’s this incredible ability to mobilise huge workforces that is keeping many manufactures in China. An article in the New York Times from last year has an Apple anecdote that shows this in action{{5}}.

[[5]]Charles Dugigg & Keith Bradsher (21January2012), How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work, The New York Times[[5]]

Another critical advantage for Apple was that China provided engineers at a scale the United States could not match. Apple’s executives had estimated that about 8,700 industrial engineers were needed to oversee and guide the 200,000 assembly-line workers eventually involved in manufacturing iPhones. The company’s analysts had forecast it would take as long as nine months to find that many qualified engineers in the United States.

Moving closer to the customer

The rapid pace of change in today’s market is driving companies to reduce the time between final assembly and when the product drops into the customer’s waiting hands.

Zara is the poster child for this shift, with a supply chain can create a new product and then have it in the stores in around two weeks. Zara has used this ability to disrupt the traditional annual, seasonal fashion cycle, resulting Zara becoming one of the largest retailers in the world.

Apple’s recent decision to make the Mac Pro in the U.S. is part of a trend to move the manufacturing of high value but low volume and bulky products closer to the customer. Elon Musk’s Tesla is also part of this trend.

Manufacturing automation technology has reached the point that it makes more sense to locate the manufacturing of these products closer to the customer, allowing transport costs and delivery times to be minimised.

We shouldn’t assume, however, that this trend will end with manufacturing returning to the West.

It’s easy to forget the more people live in Asia than in the entire rest of the world combined. If manufacturing is moving to be closer to the customer, then we need to remember that there are more customers in Asia than in the rest of the world. China’s position as a manufacturing powerhouse appears safe for the time being.

CK6aONG

Source: valeriepieris

What we mean by “export” is changing

So just where will this trend take us? (And, by extension, will our old export industries return, bringing their jobs back with them?)

The future of manufacturing and export seems – like to many industries – connected to the knowledge economy.

Those old manufacturing jobs are never coming back. They no longer exist. Similarly, thinking in terms of operating a factory and then exporting to another country is also looking somewhat antiquated.

Today (or perhaps, tomorrow) a manufacturer is a simply company that is run from one country and, from there, manages the sale of products in another.

Kogan{{6}} is a great example of this. The business is run from South Melbourne, Australia, which is where the products are designed. The products themselves are made in China and (in many cases) shipped directly to the United Kingdom where they are sold via the company’s UK web site (which is also managed from Port Melbourne, but hosted somewhere “in the cloud”).

[[6]]Kogan @ PEG[[6]]

An even more interesting example is another local business which sells safety barriers that are placed around robots in factories to ensure that workers aren’t accidentally injured. They recently started exporting to Europe. They did this by setting up a small, automated factory in Germany to service the European market. The barriers are designed in Australia and the designs are beamed directly to the machines in Germany, machines that consume resources from all over the globe.

So manufacturing – as we’ve traditionally understood it – is not returning to the West. The blue collar jobs that went overseas are not coming home to give our rather lacklustre economies a boost.

We can also expect China to remain an manufacturing powerhouse for the foreseeable future. The huge scale of operations over there, and the ability to rapidly redeploy these resources, will allow China to grab more than it’s fair share of the world manufacturing market.

Manufacturing, like so many industries{{7}}, is changing, and changing rapidly. What’s most interesting though, is how a new generation of companies are emerging that are finding ways to exploit this situation to “export”, and create new, knowledge intensive jobs at home in the process.

[[7]]The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG[[7]]

Source: Steve Jurvetson

What recession?

The global financial crisis hit nearly four years ago in 2008 but America and Europe appear to still be stuck in the mud. Even the Asian market has softened. But is this a recession? Or are we seeing a reconfiguration of the economy as the technological seeds laid over the last few generations finally germinated and bear fruit? Prices for made goods are collapsing as the cost of manufacturing has plummeted, while the cost of sourcing and distribution has crashed, caught between globalisation and the Internet. Even innovation, the source of all those sexy new products, has been democratised with the investment required to development new products taking a nosedive. Our existing business models were not designed to thrive, or even survive, this this environment. While the current market is a challenge to navigate, a lot of the problems we're seeing could be result of a collapse of antiquated business models rather than the collapse in demand that these businesses are intended to service.

Continue reading What recession?

What I like about jet engines

Rolls-Royce{{1}} (the engineering company, not the car manufacturer) is an interesting firm. From near disaster in the 70s, when the company was on the brink of failure, Rolls-Royce has spent the last 40 years reinventing itself. Where it used to sell jet engines, now the company sells hot air out the back of the engines, with clients paying only for the hours an engine is in service. Rolls-Royce is probably the one of the cleanest examples of business-technology{{2}} that I’ve come across; with the company picking out the synergies between business and technology to solve customer problems, rather than focusing on trying to align technology delivery with a previously imagined production process to push products at unsuspecting consumers. I like this for a few reasons. Firstly, because it wasn’t a green fields development (like Craig’s List{{3}} et al), and so provides hope for all companies with more than a few years under their belt. And secondly, as the transformation seems to have be the result of many incremental steps as the company felt its way into the future, rather than as the result of some grand, strategic plan.

[[1]]Rolls Royce[[1]]
[[2]]Business-Technology defined @ Forrester[[2]]
[[3]]Craig’s list[[3]]

A Rolls-Royce jet engine

I’ve been digging around for a while (years, not months), looking for good business-technology case studies. Examples of organisations which leverage the synergies between business and technology to create new business models which weren’t possible before, rather than simply deploying applications to accelerate some pre-imagined human process. What I’m after is a story that I can use in presentations and the like, and which shows not just what business-technology is, but also contrasts business-technology with the old business and technology alignment game while providing some practical insight into how the new model was created.

For a while I’ve been mulling over the obvious companies in this space, such as Craig’s List or Zappos{{4}}. While interesting, their stories don’t have the impact that they could as they were green fields developments. What I wanted was a company with some heritage, a history, to provide the longitudinal view this needs.

[[4]]Zappos[[4]]

The company I keep coming back to is Rolls-Royce. (The engineering firm, not the car manufacturer). I bumped into a story in The Economist{{5}}, Britain’s lone high-flier{{6}}, which talks about the challenge of manufacturing in Britain. (Which is, unfortunately, behind the pay wall now.) As The Economist pointed out:

A resurgent Rolls-Royce has become the most powerful symbol of British manufacturing. Its success may be hard to replicate, especially in difficult times.

[[5]]The Economist[[5]]
[[6]]Britain’s lone high-flier @ The Economist[[6]]

With its high costs and (relatively) inflexible workforce, running an manufacturing business out of Britain can be something of a challenge, especially with China breathing down your neck. Rolls-Royce’s solution was not to sell engines, but to sell engine hours.

This simple thought (which is strikingly similar to the tail of the story in Mesh Collaboration{{7}}) has huge ramifications, pushing the company into new areas of the aviation business. It also created a company heavily dependent on technology, from running realtime telemetry around the globe through to knowledge management. The business model — selling hot air out the back of an engine — doesn’t just use technology to achieve scale, but has technology woven into its very fabric. And, most interestingly, it is the result of tinkering, small incremental changes rather than being driven by some brilliant transformative idea.

[[7]]Mash-Up Corporations[[7]]

As with all these long term case studies, the Rolls-Royce story does suffer from applying new ideas to something that occurred yesterday. I’m sure that no one in Rolls-Royce was thinking “business-technology” when the company started the journey. Nor would they have even thought of the term until recently. However, the story still works for me as, for all it’s faults, I think there’s still a lot we can learn from it.

The burning platform was in the late 60s, early 70s. Rolls-Royce was in trouble. The company had 10% market share, rising labour costs, and was facing fierce competition from companies in the U.S. Even worse, these competitors did not have to worry about patents (a hangover from the second world war), they also had a large domestic market and a pipeline of military contracts which put them in a much stronger financial position. Rolls-Royce had to do something radical, or facing being worn down by aggressive competitors who had more resources behind them.

Interestingly, Roll-Royce chose to try and be smarter than the competition. Rather than focus on incremental development, the company decided to designed a completely new engine. Using carbon composite blades and a radical new engine architecture (three shafts rather than two, for those aeronautical engineers out there) their engine was going to be a lot more complex to design, build and maintain. It would also be a lot more fuel efficient and suffer less wear and tear. And it would be more scalable to different aircraft sizes. This approach allows Rolls-Royce to step out of the race for incremental improvements in existing designs (designing a slightly better fan blade) and create a significant advantage, one which would take the company’s competitors more than the usual development cycle or two to erase.

Most of the margin for jet engines, however, is in maintenance. Some pundits even estimate that engines are sold at a loss (though the manufactures claim to make modest margins on all the engines they sell), while maintenance can enjoy a healthy 35%. It’s another case of give them the razor but sell them the razor blades. But if you give away the razors, there’s always the danger that someone else may make blades to fit your razor. Fat margins and commoditized technology resulted in a thriving service market, with the major engine makers chasing each other’s business, along with a horde of independent servicing firms.

Rolls-Royce’s interesting solution was to integrate the expertise from the two businesses: engine development and servicing. Rather than run them as separate businesses, the company convinced customers to pay a fee for every hour an engine was operational. Rather than selling engines, the company sells hot air out the back of an engine. This provides a better deal for the customers (pay for what you use, rather than face a major capital expense), while providing Rolls-Royce with a stronger hold on its customer base.

Integrating the two business also enabled Rolls-Royce to become better at both. Maintenance data helps the company identify and fix design flaws, driving incremental improvements in fuel efficiency while extending the operating life (and time between major services) tenfold over the last thirty years. It also helps the company predict engine failures, allowing maintenance to be scheduled at the most opportune time for Rolls-Royce, and their customers.

Rolls-Royce leveraged this advantage to become the only one of the three main engine-makers with designs to fit the three newest airliners in the market: the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the Airbus A380 and the new wide-bodied version of the Airbus A350. Of the world’s 50 leading airlines, 45 use its engines.

Today, an operations centre in Derby assess, in real time, the performance of 3,500 jet engines enabling to Rolls-Royce to spot issues before they become problems and schedule just-in-time maintenance. This means less maintenance and more operating hours, fewer breakdowns (and, I expect, happier customers), and the operational data generated is fed back into the design process to help optimise the next generation of engines.

This photograph is reproduced with the permission of Rolls-Royce plc, copyright © Rolls-Royce plc 2010
Rolls-Royce civil aviation operations in Derby

This service-based model creates a significant barrier to competitors for anyone who wants to steal Rolls-Royce’s business. Even if you could clone Rolls-Royce’s technology infrastructure (hard, but not impossible), you would still need to recreate all the tacit operational knowledge the company has captured over the years. The only real option is to recreate the knowledge yourself, which will take you a similar amount of time as it did Rolls-Royce, while Rolls-Royce continues to forge ahead. Even poaching key personnel from Rolls-Royce would only provide a modest boost to your efforts. As I’ve mentioned before{{8}}, this approach has the potential to create a sustainable competitive advantage.

[[8]]One of the only two sources of sustainable competitive advantage available to us today @ PEG[[8]]

While other companies have adopted some aspects of Rolls-Royce’s model (including the Joint Strike Fighter{{9}}, which is being procured under a similar model), Rolls-Royce continues to lead the pack. More than half of its existing engines in service are covered by such contracts, as are roughly 80% of those it is now selling.

[[9]]The Joint Strike Fighter[[9]]

I think that this makes Rolls-Royce a brilliant example of business-technology in action. Rolls-Royce found, by trial and error, a new model that wove technology and business together in a way that created an “outside in” business model, focused on what customers what to buy, rather than on a more traditional “inside out” model based on pushing products out into the market that the company wants to sell. You could even say that it’s an “in the market” model rather than a “go to market” model. And they did this with a significant legacy, rather than as a green fields effort.

In some industries and companies this type of “outside in” approach was possible before advent of the latest generation of web technology, particularly if it was high value and the company already had a network in place (such as Rolls-Royce success). For most companies it is only now becoming possible with business-technology along with some of the current trends, such as cloud computing, which erase many of the technology barriers.

The challenge is to figure out the “in the market” model you need, and then shift management attitude. Given constant change in the market, this means an evolutionary approach, rather than a revolutionary (transformative) one.

People don’t like change. (Or do they?)

I seem to be having a lot of conversations at the moment around whether people (you, me and everyone else) like and embrace change, or whether they resist it. The same question arises for companies. Like a lot of these questions, I think it depends. As individuals we don’t mind change, given appropriate circumstances. Organisations also want to change (and in today’s business environment it seems to be a question of changing or becoming irrelevant). However, people in organisations are usually strongly incentivised to dislike change, especially if they want to make that next repayment on their new mortgage. Fixing this, and creating a culture that embraces change, means changing the way we think about and structure our organisations and our careers. It means rethinking the rules of enterprise IT.

Every time a conversation comes around to the topic of change, I’m always reminded of a visit I made to a Toyota factory something like a decade ago. It’s so long ago now that I can’t even remember the reason for the visit, but that’s not the point of this missive.

Toyota, like most businesses, loves change. (Many large companies reorganise so often that change seems to be the only constant.) Change, embodied in the development of the Toyota Production System, was what took Toyota from the bottom of the global car industry to the top. Change is also why many of us have moved companies, following jobs as our employers reorganise their operations. For some of us, change is an opportunity. For many though, change is the tool of the man as he tries to disrupt our lives. Change means unwanted relocations, pay cuts, career stalls, or the need to shift jobs when we don’t want to. Change is something to be resisted.

What was interesting about my visit to Toyota though, was the attitude of the workers on the shop floor had to change. They didn’t hate it. They didn’t even resist it. They actually arrived at work each day eager to see how work practices had been changed since the end of their last shift.

A Toyota assembly line circa 2000.
A Toyota assembly line circa 2000

The concrete example I saw of this was the pre-sorting of seatbelt parts into coloured tubs. Apparently only a few weeks earlier the parts had been arranged on a wall. All hooks and dangling parts, like your Dad’s tools in the shed. When a car came down the assembly line a worker would select the parts appropriate for the car model, and then attach them to the car. Each seat belt had roughly four parts, so that meant there was three unnecessary decisions. Unnecessary decisions usually mean mistakes, mistakes waste time and money, and there were a number of mistakes made.

One day a member of the shop floor team had had the bright idea of pre-sorting the seat belts to avoid these mistakes. Some coloured tubs were sourced (some of the shop floor team drove to the local Walmart with a little petty cash), parts were sorted into tubs, and they gave the idea a trial run. Selecting seatbelt parts for a car now only required one decision: which tub?

The idea was a huge success; error rates went down dramatically. I hear that it was even taken global, and implemented in most Toyota factories around the world. (Though being around ten years ago, and with today’s rapid pace of change, I expect that the tubs have been superseded by now.)

What’s interesting about this story is that the change originated on the shop floor, from the assembly line worker who were actively looking to improve operations, rather than from head office as part of a reorganisation. Some of the improvements I heard about even resulted in the elimination of jobs, with the workers redeployed elsewhere in the factory. Workers weren’t just changing how they did something, they were also changing what they did. Change was what made the work interesting and engaging for the workers, rather than being seen as an oppressive tool used by the man.

I think we can safely set aside the idea that works don’t like change, as this story is not an isolated incident. Why then, do so many people resist change? Why, for every Toyota factory, there is a story like the UK newspaper industry, where workers (and unions) resisted change for decades, until Rupert Murdoch came along.

Rupert Murdoch, destroyer of unions, and good Melbourne boy
Rupert Murdoch, destroyer of unions, and good Melbourne boy

The problem is not people or organisations, but people in organisations.

People are funny things; they tend to do what you incentivise them to do. There’s an excellent article over at the NY Times, The no-stars all-star, which talks about measurement and incentives in basketball. We often talk about “what gets measured determines what gets done” from an employee incentive point of view, but this article puts some real meat on the bones of that argument.

Shane Battier, the no-stars all-star
Shane Battier, the no-stars all-star

As the article says (on page two):

There is a tension, peculiar to basketball, between the interests of the team and the interests of the individual. The game continually tempts the people who play it to do things that are not in the interest of the group.

A little later it goes on to mention (on page three):

A point guard might selfishly give up an open shot for an assist. You can see it happen every night, when he’s racing down court for an open layup, and instead of taking it, he passes it back to a trailing teammate. The teammate usually finishes with some sensational dunk, but the likelihood of scoring nevertheless declined. “The marginal assist is worth more money to the point guard than the marginal point,” Morey says.

The point guard’s career is defined by the number of assists he makes (among other metrics), and he’ll try and increase the number of assets even if it’s not in the best interest of the team. After all, teams come and go, while he has a career to maintain.

Once you place a person into a role you have put them on a career path which will determine their attitude to change.

Usually we take an operational approach to defining roles, rewarding people for the volume of work they are responsible for. Career progression then means increasing the amount of work they are responsible for, regardless of what this means for the company.

Measuring a project manager in terms of head count or revenue under management will give them a strong preference for creating ever bigger projects. It doesn’t matter if the right thing to do is create more, smaller projects, rather than run a programme of a few major projects as we have in the past. Your project manager’s career path is to increase their head count and revenue under management. And they do have those private school fees due soon.

Just like the point guard, change that will prevent career progression will be resisted (remember those kids in private school), even if it is counter to the company’s best interests. Which makes the current transformation we’re seeing in IT all the more important, because if we set the wrong incentives in place then we just might be our own worst enemies.

We can’t force a square peg into a round hole; nor can we force our existing employees to take their current roles and careers into a new organisational model. They just don’t fit. Take IT for example. We can’t expect many modern IT departments to spontaneously modernise themselves, transforming into agile business-technology engines under their own volition. It’s not that the departments don’t want to change: they do. Nor are most of the employees, as individuals, opposed (remember the Toyota example). But the combination of people and organisation will repel all but the most destructive boarders.

It’s interesting how other games, games other than basketball that is, have structural solutions to this problem. One solution is the line-up in baseball. From the NY Times article (page two, again):

“There is no way to selfishly get across home plate,” as Morey puts it. “If instead of there being a lineup, I could muscle my way to the plate and hit every single time and damage the efficiency of the team — that would be the analogy.”

Solving this problem in IT means rethinking the rules of IT.

The game of IT has, for the last few decades, been determined by the need to deliver large, enterprise applications into the IT estate. Keep the lights on, don’t lose orders, and automate anything that hasn’t yet been automated. Oh — and I’d like my reports accurate and on time. IT as the game of operational engineering. It was these rules that drove the creation of most of the roles we have in enterprise IT today.

However, this has changed. Decisions are now more important than data, and the global credit crunch is driving us to reconsider the roles we need in IT. We’re trying to reinvent our IT departments for the modern era – I even posted about how this was driving the need the need to manage technology, and not applications – but we haven’t changed the rules to suit.

If we want out people to embrace change, as the people on the shop floor at Toyota did, then we need to provide them with roles and careers that support them in the new normal. And this means changing the rules. Out with the more – more applications, larger projects, more people – and in with the new.

So what are the new rules for IT?

Decisions are more important than data

Names and categories are important. Just look at the challenges faced by the archeology community as DNA evidence forces history to be rewritten when it breaks old understandings, changing how we think and feel in the process. Just who invaded who? Or was related to who?

We have the same problem with (enterprise) technology; how we think about the building blocks of the IT estate has a strong influence on how approach the problems we need to solve. Unfortunately our current taxonomy has a very functional basis, rooted as it is in the original challenge of creating the major IT assets we have today. This is a problem, as it’s preventing us to taking full advantage of the technologies available to us. If we want to move forward, creating solutions that will thrive in a post GFC world, then we need to think about enterprise IT in a different way.

Enterprise applications – the applications we often know and love (or hate) – fall into a few distinct types. A taxonomy, if you will. This taxonomy has a very functional basis, founded as it is on the challenge of delivering high performance and stable solutions into difficult operational environments. Categories tend to be focused on the technical role a group of assets have in the overall IT estate. We might quibble over the precise number of categories and their makeup, but for the purposes of this argument I’m going to go with three distinct categories (plus another one).

SABER
SABER @ American Airlines

First, there’s the applications responsible for data storage and coherence: the electronic filing cabinets that replaced rooms full of clerks and accountants back in the day. From the first computerised general ledger through to CRM, their business case is a simple one of automating paper shuffling. Put the data in on place and making access quick and easy; like SABER did, which I’ve mentioned before.

Next, are the data transformation tools. Applications which take a bunch of inputs and generate an answer. This might be a plan (production plan, staffing roster, transport planning or supply chain movements …) or a figure (price, tax, overnight interest calculation). State might be stored somewhere else, but these solutions still need some some serious computing power to cope with hugh bursts in demand.

Third is data presentation: taking corporate information and presenting in some form that humans can consume (though looking at my latest phone bill, there’s no attempt to make the data easy to consume). This might be billing or invoicing engines, application specific GUIs, or even portals.

We can also typically add one more category – data integration – though this is mainly the domain of data warehouses. Solutions that pull together data from multiple sources to create a summary view. This category of solutions wouldn’t exist aside from the fact that our operational, data management solutions, can’t cope with an additional reporting load. This is also the category for all those XLS spreadsheets that spread through business like a virus, as high integration costs or more important projects prevent us from supporting user requests.

A long time ago we’d bake all these layers into the one solution. SABER, I’m sure, did a bit of everything, though its main focus was data management. Client-server changed things a bit by breaking user interface from back-end data management, and then portals took this a step further. Planning tools (and other data transformation tools) started as modules in larger applications, eventually popping out as stand alone solutions when they grew large enough (and complex enough) to justify their own delivery effort. Now we have separate solutions in each of these categories, and a major integration problem.

This categorisation creates a number of problems for me. First and foremost is the disconnection between what business has become, and what technology is trying to be. Back in the day when “computer” referred to someone sitting at a desk computing ballistics tables, we organised data processing in much the same way that Henry Ford organised his production line. Our current approach to technology is simply the latest step in the automation of this production line.

Computers in the past
Computers in the past

Quite a bit has changed since then. We’ve reconfigured out businesses, we’re reconfiguring our IT departments, and we need to reconfigure our approach to IT. Business today is really a network of actors who collaborate to make decisions, with most (if not all) of the heavy data lifting done by technology. Retail chains are trying to reduce the transaction load on their team working the tills so that they can focus on customer relationships. The focus in supply chains to on ensuring that your network of exception managers can work together to effectively manage disruptions in the supply chain. Even head office focused on understanding and responding to market changes, rather than trying to optimise the business in an unchanging market.

The moving parts of business have changed. Henry Ford focused on mass: the challenge of scaling manufacturing processes to get cost down. We’re moved well beyond mass, through velocity, to focus on agility. A modern business is a collection of actors collaborating and making decisions, not a set of statically defined processes backed by technology assets. Trying to force modern business practices into yesterdays IT taxonomy is the source of one of the disconnects between business and IT that we complain so much about.

There’s no finer example of this than Sales and Operations Planning (S&OP). What should be a collaborative and fluid process – forward planning among a network of stakeholders – has been shoehorned into a traditional n-tier, database driven, enterprise solution. While an S&OP solution can provided significant cost saving, many companies find it too hard to fit themselves into the solution. It’s not surprising that S&OP has a reputation for being difficult to deploy and use, with many planners preferring to work around the system than with it.

I’ve been toying with a new taxonomy for a little while now, one that tries to reflect the decision, actor and collaboration centric nature of modern business. Rather than fit the people to the factory, which was the approach during the industrial revolution, the idea is to fit the factory to the people, which is the approach we use today post LEAN and flexible manufacturing. While it’s a work in progress, it still provides a good starting point for discussions on how we might use technology to support business in the new normal.

In no particular order…

Fusion solutions blend data and process to create a clear and coherent environment to support specific roles and decisions. The idea is to provide the right data and process, at the right time, in a format that is easy to consume and use, to drive the best possible decisions. This might involve blending internal data with externally sourced data (potentially scraped from a competitor’s web site); whatever data required. Providing a clear and consistent knowledge work environment, rather than the siloed and portaled environment we have today, will improve productivity (more time on work that matters, and less time on busy work) and efficiency (fewer mistakes).

Next, decisioning solutions automate key decisions in the enterprise. These decisions might range from mortgage approvals through office work, such as logistics exception management, to supporting knowledge workers workers in the field. We also need to acknowledge that decisions are often decision making processes which require logic (roles) applied over a number of discrete steps (processes). This should not be seen as replacing knowledge workers, as a more productive approach is to view decision automation as a way of amplifying our users talents.

While we have a lot of information, some information will need to be manufactured ourselves. This might range from simple charts generated from tabular data, through to logistics plans or maintenance scheduling, or even payroll.

Information and process access provide stakeholders (both people and organisations) with access to our corporate services. This is not your traditional portal to web based GUI, as the focus will be on providing stakeholders with access wherever and whenever they need, on whatever device they happen to be using. This would mean embedding your content into a Facebook app, rather than investing in a strategic portal infrastructure project. Or it might involve developing a payment gateway.

Finally we have asset management, responsible for managing your data as a corporate asset. This looks beyond the traditional storage and consistency requires for existing enterprise applications to include the political dimension, accessibility (I can get at my data whenever and wherever I want to) and stability (earthquakes, disaster recovery and the like).

It’s interesting to consider the sort of strategy a company might use around each of these categories. Manufacturing solutions – such as crew scheduling – are very transactional. Old data out, new data in. This makes them easily outsourced, or run as a bureau service. Asset management solutions map very well to SaaS: commoditized, simple and cost effective. Access solutions are similar to asset management.

Fusion and decisioning solutions are interesting. The complete solution is difficult to outsource. For many fusion solutions, the data and process set presented to knowledge workers will be unique and will change frequently, while decisioning solutions contain decisions which can represent our competitive advantage. On the other hand, it’s the intellectual content in these solutions, and not the platform, which makes them special. We could sell our platform to our competitors, or even use a commonly available SaaS platform, and still retain our competitive advantage, as the advantage is in the content, while our barrier to competition is the effort required to recreate the content.

This set of categories seems to map better to where we’re going with enterprise IT at the moment. Consider the S&OP solution I mention before. Rather than construct a large, traditional, data-centric enterprise application and change our work practices to suit, we break the problem into a number of mid-sized components and focus on driving the right decisions: fusion, decisioning, manufacturing, access, and asset management. Our solution strategy becomes more nuanced, as our goal is to blend components from each category to provide planners with the right information at the right time to enable them to make the best possible decision.

After all, when the focus is on business agility, and when we’re drowning in a see of information, decisions are more important than data.

Is “agile enterprise IT” an oxymoron?

Have we managed to design agility out of enterprise IT? Are the two now incompatible? Our decision to measure IT purely in terms of cost (ROI) or stability (SLAs) means that we have put aside other desirable characteristics like responsiveness, making our IT estates more like the lumbering airships of the 1920s. While efficient and reliable (once we got the hydrogen out of them), they are neither exciting or responsive to the business. The business ends up going elsewhere for their thrills. What to do?

LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin
LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin

An interesting post on jugaad over at the Capgemini CTO blog got me thinking. The tension between the managed chaos that jugaad seems to represent and the stability we strive for in IT seems to nicely capture the current tensions between business and IT. Business finds that opportunities are blinking in and out of existence faster than ever before, providing dramatically reduced windows of opportunity leaving IT departments unable to respond in time, prompting the business to look outside the organisation for solutions.

The first rule of CIOs is “you only have a seat at the strategy table if you’re keeping the lights on”. The pressure is on to keep the transactions flowing, and we spend a lot of time and money (usually the vast majority of our budget) ensuring that transactions do indeed flow. We often complain that our entire focus seems to be on cost and operations, when there is so much more we can bring to the leadership team. We forget that all departments labour under a similar rule, and all these rules are really just localised versions of a single overarching rule: the first rule of business, which is to be in business (i.e. remain solvent). Sales needs to sell, manufacturing needs to manufacture, … By devoting so much of our energy on cost and stability, we seems to have dug ourselves into a bit of a hole.

There’s another rule that I like to quote from time-to-time: management is not the art of making the perfect decision, but making a timely decision and then making it work. This seems to be something we’ve forgotten in the West, and particularly in IT. Perfection is an unattainable ideal in the real world, and agility requires a little chaos/instability. What’s interesting about jugaad is the concept’s ability to embrace the chaos required to succeed when resource constraints prevent you for using the perfect (or even simply the best) solution.

Vickers F.B. 5 Gunbus
Vickers F.B.5. Gunbus

Consider a fighter plane. The other day I was watching a documentary on the history of aircraft which showed how the evolution of fighters is a progression from stability to instability The first fighters (and we’re talking the start of WWI here–all fabric and glue) were designed to float above the battlefield where the pilots could shoot down at soldiers, or even lob bombs at them. They were designed to be very stable, so stable that the pilot could ignore the controls for a while and the plane would fly itself. Or you could shoot out most of the control surfaces and still land safely. (Sounds a bit like a modern, bullet proof, IT application, eh?)

The Red Baron: NAME
The Red Baron: Manfred von Richthofen

The problem with these planes is that they are very stable. It’s hard to make them turn and dance about, and this makes them easy to shoot down. They needed to be more agile, harder to shoot down, and the solution was to make them less stable. The result, by the end of WWI, was the fairly unstable tri-planes we associate with the Red Baron. Yes, this made them harder to fly, and even harder to land, but it also made them harder to hit.

Wizz forward to the modern day, and we find that all modern fighters are unstable by design. They’re so unstable that they’re unflyable without modern fly-by-wire systems. Forget about landing: you couldn’t even get them off the ground without their fancy control systems. The governance of the fly-by-wire systems lets the pilot control the uncontrollable.

The problem with modern IT is that it is too stable. Not the parts, the individual applications, but the IT estate as a whole. We’ve designed agility out of it, focusing on creating a stable and efficient platform for lobbing bombs onto the enemy below. This is great is the landscape below us doesn’t change, and the enemy promises not to move or shoot back, but not so good in today’s rapidly changing business environment. We need to be able to rapidly turn and dance about, both to dodge bullets and pounce on opportunities. We need some instability as instability means that we’re poised for change.

Jugaad points out that we need to allow in a bit of chaos if we want to bring the agility back in. The chaos jugaad provides is the instability we need. This will require us to update our governance processes, evolving them beyond simply being a tool to stop the bad happening, transforming governance into a tool for harvesting the jugaad where it occurs. After all, the role of enterprise IT is to capture good ideas and automate them, allowing them to be leveraged across the entire enterprise.

Managing chaos has become something of a science in the aircraft world. Tools like Energy-Maneuverability theory are used during aircraft design to make informed tradeoffs between weight, weapons load, amount of wing (i.e. ability to turn), and so on. This goes well beyond most efforts to map and score business processes, which is inherently a static pieces/parts and cost driven approach. Our focus should be on using different technologies and delivery approaches to modify how our IT estate responds to business change; optimising our IT estate’s dynamic, change-driven characteristics as well as its cost-driven static characteristics.

This might be the root of some of the problems we’re seeing between business and IT. IT’s tendency to measure value in terms of cost and/or stability leads us to create IT estates optimised for a static environment, which are at odds with the dynamic nature of the modern business environment. We should be focusing on the overall dynamic business performance of the IT estate, its energy-maneuverability profile.

The rules of the game are changing

Can China beat the U.S.A. at customer service? Not quite yet according to The Economist, but they do seem to be getting there. If Chinese businesses can start to out perform the West in front office processes then China would start to be the front line seller, not the back office producer. And China has a massive, and rapidly maturing, domestic market to experiment on as it tries to get these processes right.

The Economist’s article provides us with a real sense of the shift in global business that that the current financial crises only seems to be accelerating. I’m a big believer that there’s nothing particularly special about the people in any particular country. I’ve been lucky enough to work on most of the continents and with a diverse enough range of nationalities to understand that we’re all equally intelligent, creative and innovative given half a chance. If we’re all as smart as each other then ultimately success (or not) of a country will come down to the size of its talent pool (population) and the willingness of its businesses to invest. China and India, with their massive populations, and drive to modernize are well positioned to tip the balance in their favor, if they can sort their domestic markets out. This appears to be happening.

Our current assumptions seem to be that the East (China and India) will manufacture products designed in the West (the U.S.A. and Europe) and which are sold to western customers. Most of the value is generated and captured in the West. This makes sense at the moment as the West (and the US in particular) is the largest, homogenous and rich market in the world. Western companies have the advantage of a large domestic market, and overseas companies all target the West as it offers the largest potential to grow their businesses.

However, China’s move into the front office has the potential to flip the entire balance. Western companies could be manufacturing Chinese designs for western domestic markets, with the cash generated in the West and value captured in the East. With its huge internal population Chinese business will have access to the talent it needs to invent and design new products and services. It has have a large domestic population to grow a business and tune its offering. As costs rise and the advantages of labour arbitrage are eroded, manufacturing will slowly migrate from East to West to be close to the client where it avoids currency risk (similar to how various Japanese car companies established factories in the American south).

The question on all of our lips, though, is “How does this effect me?”

The world is a more complex place than we first assumed. Not only is the business cycle accelerating, but globalization and the global financial crisis seem to be changing the underlying rules which drive the business cycle. Global supply chains are becoming yet more complex, and we’re even more tightly integrated into the global village. Plowing the same farrow as last year is no longer a viable strategy if we want to survive. We all need to think quite carefully about not just how we’re going to create good businesses in our local market, but what is going to provide out businesses with the originality they need to survive in a global market as we come under increasing pressure from competitors from all around the globe.

Suddenly it seems like The World is Flat  only scratched the tip of the iceberg.

Innovation [2008-11-17]

Another week and another collection of interesting ideas from around the Internet.

As always, thoughts and/or comments are greatly appreciated.

This issue:

Business-Technology mailing list

For some time we’ve been focused on the quest of slaying the business-technology alignment dragon. We don’t seem to have succeeded—at least not very often. Worse still, the rules of the game seem to be changing as we speak. Rather than manage IT as a large capital expense and asset, aligning business and IT by aligning investment, some companies are working to find and exploit the synergies between the two. Craig’s List is taking a significant chunk of the global classified advertisement market with a staff of 20 people, while Threadless is a case study of applying similar ideas to the old world business of designing, manufacturing and selling t-shirts. These organizations are so lean that they are virtually impossible to compete against.

How do they do it? What are the insights they are finding? Where are they finding them? And, most importantly, what can we learn from them? We’ve started this email as a platform to share some of our thinking. Hopefully this will provide inspiration for applying some ideas from these new school players thinking to our old school organizations.

First edition: Managing technology, not applications.