Absorb variety and increase excellence

Trying to address the demands of variety is a perennial problem. Customers wanting different features in a product, a different colour, a different size, a specific delivery slot, a student wanting specific feedback on their essay. In times gone by, the craftsman would make things according to what the customer wanted. Take the blacksmith – he would manufacture a horseshoe (or shoes) specific to the horse that was presented to him by his customer. A unique shoe every time, or at least finished from a blank to fit the foot perfectly. If you didn’t make your own clothes, you would buy from someone who did, and the clothes were produced in the same way – fitted and finished in the cloth of your choice.

Increasing numbers of customers (and therefore volumes of production) gradually made the provision this type of offer through ‘cottage industries’ more difficult. Bakers had almost always produced batches of loaves for a range of customers, for example, whilst drapers, haberdashers, corwainers and milliners largely did the same. By the 1900s Henry Ford had taken things to the extreme when he produced the Model T Ford, stating memorably in 1909 that any customer “can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”.

model T
Also in white…

Today we are used to buying off-the-shelf or off-the-peg products and services, from fruit to footwear, from breakfasts to banking. Standard products are so familiar that off-the-shelf is seen as inferior and run-of-the-mill. Of course commercially this has become a NEW point of competition and differentiation. Marketeers have identified ways in which we can customise the products to suit our needs. Why?

The reason for wanting to differentiate is, at a superficial level, because we like it. The reason we like it, however, is because we have different needs and at a fundamental level we want a product or service that meets our needs.

So what is there to do about this if we are offering services, whether financial, commercial, educational or other?

Somehow we have to design our services to allow people to request variety, so that a variety of requests from many different customers can be absorbed by the system. Does this sound like some kind of menu system (akin to the dreaded telephone services; press 1 for …). No! Because if we do that we are just providing off-the-shelf all over again: simply reproducing options based on what we already produce in the workshop (or back-office), we build up a set of stock answers that potentially meet no-one’s needs.

Instead we have to do quite the opposite. We need to design processes to be flexible to meet the needs of users/customers at the point of demand. If we do that then our services will respond to them at the point of need and will deliver against their requirements. Services will then be perceived as excellent by the individuals who matter – the people that use them!


Further Reading:

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Ford H. (1922) My Life and Work (in collaboration with S. Crowther), Chapter 4, Cosimo Classics

MacDonald, J. (1998) Calling a Halt to Mindless Change, Amacom, UK

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