Archive for December, 2006

December 19, 2006

Saving time or designing it into the system?

Saving time or designing it into the system?

Industrial systems, as well as the global economies, are undergoing enormous and rapid changes that are challenging the development model of industrialised countries. Such a change is heavily involving the disciplines of engineering and design. This reframing process can be seen from different perspectives, at the global, as well as the local level.

If we look at this process from a global perspective, we observe that the huge differences in labour costs and a decrease in transport costs are encouraging the relocation of industrial production to developing countries. For some years now, western companies have been relocating manufacturing activities, and are now moving service activities, too. At the moment developed countries are retaining management and decisional functions, including design, because of their strategic role; however the growth of the new markets will require part of those functions to migrate, as well. More and more designers will be needed, for instance, to address the specific preferences of customers in Asian markets, where design services will be offered for a lower price.

The relocation of manufacturing processes is requiring a new approach to manage production systems that are geographically fragmented and scattered around the globe.

But we can see the present moment from a different perspective: If we reduce the perspective to local contexts for instance, the reality looks different, even when considering the dramatic changes brought about by globalisation. Globalised markets are not globalising needs, indeed needs are always related to a cultural, economic, social and technological context. While production is becoming global, needs are becoming highly individualised. This implies that global production will not necessarily satisfy the needs of local markets and consequently that globalised industrial production will be challenged to develop the capability to differentiate their offering beyond the present models of market segmentations, whose development started back in the ´70s and eventuated in mass customisation. Such a segmented offering will be possible by adapting globally or locally produced products through a system of local services, which will take care of logistic, local aspects and users’ individual preferences and life patterns.

This will possibly require engineering designers to work on the system of services and organisations surrounding physical products, giving high priority to the specific solutions provided in local context. The implication of this, for engineering designers, is that they have to learn how to deal with services, rather than products, and learn how to interface production processes at different scales (globally produced products, national operational procedures and local services, for instance).

Bill Hollins’ recent contribution for this journal (Hollins, 2006) seems particularly centred on this debate. Hollins’ focuses on the operative terms for designers to manage the service-related aspects of industrial offerings.

Hollins proposed that the approach used in production processes be employed to generate a service blueprint, which is a technical representation of a service, which breaks the service process down to sequential constituent stages. A blueprint, therefore, allows for a detailed representation of a service, thus allowing for a proper planning of people, time, sequence of events and resources.

Hollins proposal for a blueprint is not new, as it comes from Shostack´s contributions (Shostack, 1982, , 1983), which, in fact started the debate on how to design service processes. However Hollins stresses the relevance of time for planning services. His article takes inspiration from the long time wasted in a cue to open a new bank account. He argues that such time could be saved by an adequate planning process that could use all the most common tools for production processes, from TQM to JIT and capacity planning.

Hollins argues that time management is even more important in service processes than in normal production systems: while production systems are trying to optimise the use of plants, equipment and resources, in service system a new element come to play a critical role, the client’s time. Unlike products, services are produced in the moment of their delivery and cannot be stored, therefore the problem of storing finished stock would not exist, however, likewise exceeding stocks during the production system, the possible delay in service delivery (e.g. waiting customers in a bank or at an hairdresser’s shop) are reducing efficiency in services; moreover customers, unlike lamps and metals, are likely to complain, if kept waiting.

In emphasising the need for time saving, Hollins clearly states his different approach from Shostack. Although he acknowledges that, as emphasised by Shostack,a mechanical approach would miss the consumer relations to, and interaction with the service, he believes that such an approach would be beneficial for the whole service and free up time for ´making people special´, as well as a faster throughput of customers, and hence profit.

Hollins approach is in fact very effective in services in which the customer is “served”, that means he/she is more or less a passive receiver (e.g. the client of a hairdresser or even the client of a bank, for daily bank operations). In those services, in fact, the production process is mainly depending on the capability of the service provider to accurately manage time, resources and equipment. In those condition Hollins’ parallel between service providers and production processes is very effective and provides useful insights on how to design an efficient service. However Hollins’ logic may not work with the same efficiency in a different paradigm and with different kinds of services

Several services are emerging, in which time is not as relevant as the capability to create logical (and business) connections between different actors, in order for them to co-produce a new kind of offering (Normann, 2001; Normann & Ramirez, 1994). This is a paradigm shift that is also changing the relative role of producer and consumer in value production, thus generating new forms of value production and changing the role of industrial companies-once the main actor in the production of value- from producer to organiser of value creation. Norman and Ramirez mention several successful business cases in which the capabilities of the service customer has been emphasised, in order to raise his/her role to co-producer, or co-worker. The main case the two authors mention in this line is IKEA, which provides its clients with a set of “design tools” for them to participate to the process of value creation. Seen from this logic, the IKEA catalogue is a powerful design manual, which enables people who do not necessarily have particular design skills to design their own ideal home (with the help of the photos of different layouts in the catalogue). Once in the shop, customers perform other important functions, such as choosing the right components (and the right dimension for each component) picking up items from the shelf, transport them back home and assemble the items. The whole shopping process is accurately designed through sequences of thematic areas (kitchen, badroom, etc.), pauses (, kid’s corner and toilet, restaurant) and full size layout of the various home areas.

Although IKEA’s phenomenon is somehow an exception to the mainstream service structure the new paradigm is inevitably transforming also more traditional business, from banks (the service used by Hollins as the main example) to supermarkets. Those services are offering more and more sets of solutions, to support lifestyles based on more and more complex mixes of preferences. The extension of target groups for those services is increasing, while the diversification of individual preferences within those groups suggests that, at least in the service sector, the concept of mass customisation is probably too obsolete: we should probably think those services as highly individualised offering systems.

The traditional production paradigm, however seems inadequate to meet the extreme articulation of contemporary needs, because it is based on a passive users, which receive a service by appropriately trained personnel. Highly individualised solutions would require highly specialised personnel (and this would possibly be not enough) and an expensive production system, in which economies of scale cannot be generated, because of the high variation of the demand. For this reason even traditional business is shifting towards new models in which the final customers is given the responsibility to work for the generation of her/his own personal solution. This is commonly verifiable in supermarkets, which are almost totally based on the client’s self service, but it is also becoming quite common in banks, where brochures, information booklets, videos, webpages and posters are orienting the client through a complex set of the services, from personal loans to financial services. A bank would prefer its clients to spend some time on those services, in order to intensify the links and the level of service it could provide. True, there are core operations, such as opening of a bank account or withdrawing money, which could be streamlined, in order to save valuable clients’ and personnel’s time. Likewise, buying toilet paper or milk in a supermarket should not take too much of our time. For those operations mechanistic approaches could be beneficial. However the design of the whole service should be organised in order to take into consideration qualitative aspects related to the period in which the clients are in contact with the service. Time cannot just be considered as a cost (to be reduced at all costs) but rather as an opportunity that properly designed could increase profit. Some supermarket chains are in fact reluctant to offer web-based home delivery services (which would bring products straight to the customer, without wasting any time on the shelf) because they realised that a large part of the shopping is unplanned, based on information provided within the supermarket. They rather prefer to accurately organise shopping sequences and paths, from the entrance to the counter.

This paradigm shift however, needs design tools that organise clients’ work within the value production process. For this purpose existing mechanistic methods can still be used, as far as they are complemented with further methods that capture individual customers’ behaviour and attitudes and organised them appropriately.

Here, again, some essential engineering concepts could prove useful. The organisation of production process through platforms, for instance, allows for a combination of solutions, and a higher flexibility of the production process. Likewise, services in which the users’ behaviour is relevant, could be structured on the basis of platforms, in which several possible behaviours would be supported. Each solution would represent a specific architecture of components (services, customers’ behaviour, products, interactions). The assemblage of part of those components in a different configuration could generate the ideal solution for a different customer. In this sense the organisation (the bank or the supermarket) could become organisers of value creation, by coordinating the assemblage of product and services produced by themselves or provided by other actors (e.g. brokerage services, logistic services).

Virtual services, such as webpage, could strengthen the integration of components: a webpage may support users by providing them with all the needed information or by enabling them to work out their own solution (opening a bank account, trading stocks, ordering food or booking a trip).

Beyond traditional services, the organisation by platforms can also inspire the generation of innovative solutions with high levels of customisation. The emergence of such solutions is more evident when, the focus shifts from existing services and service providers to emerging products, around which it is possible to organise “solution-oriented partnerships” (Manzini, Collina, & Evans, 2004).

While the organisation of the platform may provide a broad overview of the structure of a service, a detailed analysis of how the components are linked in each solution needs further methodological tools. In this case the organisation of each solution could use scenarios, which describe the sequence of events for the provision of a service. Within such a sequencea series of functionalities can be highlighted, which should be described even more accurately. A useful method for this minute description could be borrowed from information science: information architects analyse different users’ behaviours related to a specific function through use cases, which are short, plain language description of how a function is used. Each description has a title, one or more actors (with real names and sometimes specific profiles), a sequence of events, specifications about pre-conditions and post-conditions and possible alternative paths.

Use cases could also be used for a detailed description of functionalities in a service. Unlike computer program, though, a service does not only consist of a series of logical sequences and links. Time, events, people and environments are possibly much more relevant in a service than in a software. For this reason this method could be implemented with a richer graphical notation, which provides further information about the above mentioned critical elements. Once again, this graphical notation should be a medium for the communication between actors with different backgrounds, therefore the same use-case may be represented in a very schematic and codified language for communicating with experts –which will be possibly familiar with a standardised technical notation), and in a very colloquial and figurative way, when communicating with final users, which are not supposed to be familiar with any technical language.

In any cases use cases could represent and link events in the front office (e.g. users’ behaviour, interaction between users and service providers) and back office. Such link can be graphically represented, in order to illustrate how the system behind the service is behaving, in order to support each functionality.

 Hollins, B. (2006). Why don’t We Design Out the Wait? Engineering Designer. The Journal of the Institution of Engineering Designers, 32(4), 26-30.

Manzini, E., Collina, L., & Evans, S., (Ed.). (2004). Solution Oriented Partnership. How to Design Industrialised Sustainable Solutions. Cranfield: Cranfield University. European Commission GROWTH Programme.

Normann, R. (2001). Reframing business : when the map changes the landscape. Chichester: Wiley.

Normann, R., & Ramirez, R. (1994). Desiging Interactive Strategy. From Value Chain to Value Constellation (1998 ed.). New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Shostack, L. G. (1982). How to Design a Service. European Journal of Marketing, 16(1), 49-63.S

hostack, L. G. (1983, 1984). Service Design in the Operating Environment. Paper presented at the Developing New Services, Villanova University, Villanova, Pa.