A Call For a Customer-centric View Of Manufacturing

Manufacturing is in need for relooking at its functional silos, its value chain and efficiently devised labour distribution to bring in a customer centric view and be innovative in turn

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In the realm of manufacturing, we have come a long distance from the days of Henry Ford, when the pioneer of the assembly line made the infamous statement, "any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants, so long as it is black."

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Today, color seems to be an element of differentiation, as it appears from the latest print ads of smart phones from Apple and Samsung. But does it really mean customer centricity or are we still rooted to the old ways of thinking about 'better products winning the day for us'? Not surprisingly, the value chains of the manufacturing industries haven't changed much in the bygone era. The finer division of labour to ease complexity and to hasten up the speed has reached its limits. With everyone so minutely focused on their specific tasks and improving the narrowly defined matrices, who is really looking at the customer? What's the point in making a product cheaper and faster when the customer doesn't desire it anymore? Think of face masks or hand sanitizers, for instance. Ironically, the division of labour, an acute focus on product improvement and fanaticism on productivity often costs innovation and creativity. And many companies are still focused on outdated targets honing out-modelled techniques and soon to be ousted from the marketplace. Here is a call for being customer centric even if you don't work with the customer directly.

Let us first understand the meaning of customer centricity. It's about keeping the customer's desires, her preferences, both articulated and unarticulated, in mind while designing and delivering your offerings. While this may sound intuitive, for most organizations it isn't. For instance, IVR (interactive voice response) at call centers. While it is a great piece of technology that certainly shaves cost and improves productivity, but it almost always comes at the cost of customer intimacy. I would rather talk to a human being and discuss my issues in my own language than limiting my imagination to a set of digits or pre-fixed menu. The chat bots, popular in most service companies, is of limited avail either. In manufacturing the customer engagement is relegated to some low-key functions, if not entirely outsourced. Think of how much attention the leadership pays to procurement or manufacturing or even supply chain vis-à-vis customer service centre! Once a product is shipped the company often assumes that their responsibility is over and they must now get busy with another version of their dream product. That's your product centricity. Worst still companies often don't get tired chasing their competitors, and keep emulating their products, services and even policies to limited avail. That's competitor centricity. Yet other want to be always on the right side of the regulators and policy makers, and that's 'policy centricity', and the list is long. But true customer centricity may often come at the cost of product, process, competition, profits or policy centricity, and that calls for a significant shift in the value chain view of the leaders.

Here I propose a three-pronged approach to how manufacturing industry can bring in a greater level of customer centricity in the mindshare of its employees and its practices. Firstly, define the customer broadly as anyone whose problems you solve. Secondly, have clear matrices that tell you the impact your activities are making on the end customer. Thirdly, have a feedback from the marketplace on how you are doing and what else needs to be done.

The classic Lean Thinking principles would dictate that the next person in the value stream is your customer and you must serve her. However, it shouldn't lead to one taking eyes off the end customer. There are often situations with a clear conflict between the demand of the next station in line and what the end customer desires, such as high throughput versus variety, or cost versus convenience. By defining the customer as broadly as possible, in terms of the various stakeholders, the employees can get a better appreciation of how their actions address customers' problems. For instance, if I am designing a shopping cart, apart from the shopper, I must also take into consideration the worries of store people, the security personnel, the repairmen, the shop owners, children, and even makers of complementary products, such as point of sales counters or escalators. This broad view of customers can help iron out some of the design flaws earlier in the game.

Next up is the imperative of measuring what matters. Shouldn't the employee on the shopfloor be bothered about how much the product is selling over that of competitors'? Or should she be merely measured on parts per day? Wouldn't it be interesting to link the performance of a janitor to the customer satisfaction score rather than merely looking at the area mopped or hours of work? By linking any employee performance to the ultimate measures that directly impact the end customer satisfaction or product uptake or repeat purchase, you bring to everyone's consciousness as to what they all are really working for.

Finally, it's important to establish means by which customers can reach to the hidden worker whose job per say isn't customer facing. Can't I, as a buyer of a car, offer valuable insights to the procurement manager of the OEM? Only if there's some means by which we can talk or that my concerns and ideas get relayed to that manager. That's where concepts like job rotation, plant visits, customer outings, and other means of formal and informal interfaces are valuable. For instance, every year Tanishq, one of India's leading jewellery retailers, invites its customers to visit its factories, not just to witness how jewellery is manufactured but also to offer their valuable suggestions. For a worker it always helps to get to see the end customer and to hear from her of what her next desire.

In summary, manufacturing is in need for relooking at its functional silos, its value chain and efficiently devised labour distribution to bring in a customer centric view and be innovative in turn.