Thursday, 20 March 2008

A Brief History of Time-Based Strategy.

The ‘speed thing’ - whether time-to-market, production cycle-times, or delivery lead-times, et al - isn’t new. It goes way back before it became vogue in late 20th century business strategy. Competition through swiftness goes back millennia in fact.

The Great Wall of China and Rome’s straight cobbled roads where constructed to deploy troops and ordnance at pace. Empires would fallen like dominos if it were not for these engineering super-highways.

When the first prototype model of the K5054 (Type 300) Spitfire was assembled in 1936 it took almost 28 days of 24 hour shifts. By the end of the Battle of Britain in October 1940 it took a mere 9 hours to put the Mark-V (type 331) Spitfire together…. And hay, who said the Japanese pioneered Kaizen type continuous improvement?

Lockheed (now merged as Lockheed-Martin) also as far back a the World-War-II and through the 1970s continued to amaze the Pentagon by the speed at which they designed and built advanced tactical jet aircraft. In fact, one-tenth of the time compared to the competition. The driving force behind this stupendous rate of productivity was one Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson. He set up an organisation with all the processes in one giant hanger to cut across red-tape to get things done without fuss. Two of his most celebrated projects was the U-2 and SR-71 (Blackbird) spy plans. They went from rough sketch to airborne prototype in under 21 weeks (that’s 144 days).

In 1979 a client of the Boston Consulting Group revealed the conclusions of a benchmarking programme he carried out between his US factories against his Japanese affiliate’s factories. The findings were stark. The Japanese plants had substantially higher productivity, better quality, less inventory, less space and much faster throughput times. However, they were baffled as to how they achieved such competitive advantages? And after the best part of a 4 year study the cause of these effects were delineated. ‘Time’ was at the essence.

During these investigations many closely held assumptions as to how costs and customers behave were altered. Instead of costs going up as run-lengths are reduced; instead of costs going up as greater investment in quality; instead of costs going up with increasing variety and quicker response times; costs came down. Further, instead of customer demand being only marginally affected by expanded choice and better responsiveness, it proved astoundingly sensitive to better service.

After these conclusions were drawn, they began to leak out into the technical media, and so time-based strategy began to take off. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s speed became a big issue. In Japan Sony, Casio and Sharp adopted the temporal approach to new products. Six months for new platform digital watch, camera, phone, PDA, or forget it! State-side, the likes of Xerox, AT&T, H-P, Intel, and Motorola begun to see the benefit and implement time-based strategies and organisations. Eventually, in some cases, new product introduction went from many tardy years to months.

And so it was set. Manufacturing, and many a service industry was ablaze with buzz terms like ‘Simultaneous Engineering, ‘Integrated Design and Manufacturing,’ ‘Process Reengineering,‘ and ‘Time-to-Market.’

Today, arguable, Formular-1 racing hold the batten of speed across new product introduction and production cycle-times. Making use of ultra-fast design and manufacturing technologies, and highly talented, skilled and integrated teams of engineers and designers. Racecraft models go through significant adaptations week-to-week during race season.


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