Ever since Jack Welch popularised the coinage, several organisations have been turning “boundaryless”—erasing the boundaries that traditionally existed between different teams, processes and stages of manufacturing to integrate them for better outcomes. The value of a boundaryless approach is that the collaboration helps in innovation and in enhancing customer experience.
Pushing boundaries and eliminating barriers
Is the customer and her/his experience the end-point of the manufacturing and distribution process? No. With a boundaryless approach, the roles typically played in manufacturing and distribution are changing; the manufacturing value chain is no more a unidirectional process that culminates in delivery. Instead, it is a continuous loop that is fed by customer input and involvement and enriched by proactive contributions through different collaborating entities. A boundaryless experience then is not just about the elimination of boundaries, but also about the shifting of existing boundaries. I see three kinds of boundaries that are undergoing tectonic shifts.
1. Boundless Data: In the past, customers had no information about the manufacturing process and data was completely bound—it belonged either to the manufacturer or to the customer and rarely got exchanged. But today, with digitalization, the situation is different. Now, products themselves are capable of exchanging data. The limits of data between customers and manufacturers are getting blurred, and data is openly exchanged in a boundaryless manner.
We see several instances of data exchange in telematics. Let us take the example of an insurance company that provides usage-based insurance. They would begin by installing their devices in cars and automobiles. Now, who is the customer here? While the car owner is the customer, there are two other entities as well, the insurance company and the manufacturer, and unless they exchange the data, they do not obtain the user profile they need. In these terms, it is difficult to define a line for the process—it ends with the manufacturer or starts with the insurer and ends at the owner. The very process is boundaryless.
Digital technologies are playing a significant role in enabling data to be gathered, communicated externally and in facilitating quick decisions and actions through the meaningful use of such data. Telematics or connected manufacturing makes it very easy to capture data and exchange it in real time. Digital manufacturing technologies can enable a ‘digital thread’ of seamless data to add value to all stages, including marketing, distribution, sales, use and service.
And all this boundless data is contributing directly to the current trends in manufacturing. First, customers get to know what is happening with their order very early on. Second, and more importantly, today, products are highly customised. Even as there are lesser numbers manufactured, the variants of the product are very high. Every customer wants a tailormade product, not something off-the-shelf. Such customisation cannot take place unless there is a boundaryless exchange of information between customers and manufacturers. With big data and analytics, customer data can be integrated into making a more relevant product. The coming together of digital technologies, such as big data, connected assets, cloud, mobility and predictive modelling can create and enable such a boundaryless exchange.
2. Exchanging experiences and roles: The second aspect centres on changing responsibilities. Today, manufacturers and service providers are varying their processes so that the role they were performing earlier now gets transferred to the customer. A case in point is Ikea. It has created a manufacturing setup and product design approach that lets customers create their furniture themselves. While being provided with the basic components required to build what they want, customers have the responsibility and the power to assemble their furniture as per their preferences. Similarly, there are several instances of this in the services sector. Earlier, customers would call a call centre, tell them what they wanted, and the call centre would do it for the customer. Now, with mobile applications, users are being enabled to perform tasks and handle a wide range of services themselves, facilitated to a large degree, by digital technologies. We see, therefore, that the boundaries that shaped the roles of customers and manufacturers or providers are shifting—customers are now doing what manufacturers would control earlier and they are loving it.
3. Blurring lines of competition and collaboration: The third area where boundaries are being exceeded is in the shifting spheres of authority. Conventional domains of competition are morphing into collaborative modes to serve the customer what she or he expects. Frequently in the manufacturing space, a company ends up in competition with suppliers or OEMs it works with because they are doing the same thing. Yet, the dividing lines of competition are difficult to identify, and customer preferences are driving this collaboration. Customers assume that the manufacturer knows what they want and expect manufacturers to collaborate with a third party—which could be a supplier or another customer—to deliver it. This is resulting in the removal of set boundaries of “competitor” and “collaborator” from transactions in the interest of business.
Boundaryless customer experience—a win-win loop
I believe that the manufacturing process is turning boundaryless, which is great for customers, as it yields an optimised product that is best-tailored to their requirements.
Boundarylessness also benefits the bottom-line of businesses because it helps create differentiation and helps create a sticky relationship—one in which the customer is involved with the product, the manufacturing process and the manufacturer. Differentiation can be created based on the customer’s preferences for personalisation so, customers “pay” attention and “spend” their time.
In the present landscape, most organisations are already adopting processes and technologies to efface boundaries, and I believe manufacturing organisations are going to continue to see a lot of changes in this regard. Product variants will take centre-stage with companies having fewer setups for mass manufacturing and more custom-made products using automation. Automation will, in fact, make variant management scalable—something that is a challenge to do manually with the current technologies.
Digital technologies will enable value chains to turn more global and become integrated, thereby erasing existing boundaries. However, to really enable a boundaryless manufacturing journey, organisations will need to fundamentally rethink their business models towards eliminating barriers. I believe we need to reconsider the lines that define our processes and bind our roles. Without these lines to limit our thinking and activity, we can reimagine the value we can deliver and the customer experiences we can create.
-The author is the co-founder and CTO at KPIT Technologies