Doing Your Job Well: What Kind of Factory are You?

There are four kinds of service processes in the world. Understanding which one you are gives you an opportunity to maximize your value to your organization while simplifying your life. As a bonus, it will also let you avoid making the same mistakes my employers made.

power-plant-815799_640This is obvious: For businesses to succeed, they have to become very good at what they do. The same is true for you and your management: For you to succeed, it’s critical that you (and your management) recognize what kind of job you have.

Getting the Job Wrong

While that might be obvious, it’s interesting how often organizations get this wrong.  For example, for much of my career, I’ve been involved in manufacturing companies. When I moved from one manufacturing company (where I was a project leader) to another (where I became head of the IT department), both myself and my new employers all believed that the transition would be relatively seamless. After all, I was just moving from one manufacturing company to another. We were mistaken though, I think, my new employers never realized that.

My old company was in the petrochemical industry: oil flowed in at one end of our plant and rubber flowed out of the other end. My new employer was a heavy equipment manufacturer assembling a variety of raw materials into complex pieces of machinery. In my old job we made tens of thousands of metric tons of rubber every day. In my new job, we made four to seven machines a day (we could practically give every one of them a name). As I quickly realized after I took over my new job: I knew nothing about how this new business worked. Fortunately, by keeping my mouth shut and paying attention for six months, I got up to speed without (I think) anyone noticing.

You might think that this kind of mistake is unusual. You’d be wrong. For example, while working with my previous employer, the company had been bought by a multinational mega company. At some point, management decided that we should adopt our new parent’s system for managing our inventory of rubber — after all, both our new parent and us made rubber.

What we hadn’t realized was that our new parent was in the “commodity rubber” business. They sold rubber the way people buy screws – when people need more screws, they walk into the store, find the right length and size, buy a box and leave. Basically, people buy “more of the same.” My company was in the “custom rubber” business. We sold rubber the way people buy wallpaper: When you need more wallpaper to finish a room, you want more than wallpaper with the same size and type — you want wallpaper with the same pattern, from the same manufacturer, and (if possible) from the same dye lot as the wallpaper you already have up. You want “another batch just like the batch you got before.”

So, after my company switched over to our new parent’s inventory system, our life became a nightmare. A customer would call us up asking for “Another batch of that high-grade rubber with a ‘mooney’ of 150” and our parent’s system didn’t have a facility to search for that batch. Instead, our customer service reps had to scroll through the list of all the rubber in inventory, hoping to find a batch that matched the customer’s specifications. And, of course, if you didn’t find a matching batch you couldn’t be sure if there wasn’t a batch there…or if you had just missed it as the screens scrolled by.

The reason for these differences is that (as we discuss in Learning Tree’s Strategic Thinking for Operational Managers course) is that there are four kinds of processes in the world: Factory, Professional,  Mass, and Shop. In addition to helping you understand what your company does, those same four distinctions can be applied to your job to understand how you can do your job better.

Four Kinds of Processes

A service factory, prides itself on how many “units” it can process in an identical way in the least amount of time. A hotel (or an amusement park) is an example of a service factory. If your path to success is as a service factory, then you are keenly interested in efficiency- how can you do more in less time, primarily by reducing the time required to process any single request. You’re not interested in providing a customized solution and you want to discourage people from asking for customizations. Instead, you’ll concentrate on doing one thing very well, while emphasizing the quality of that single service and its low cost.

At the other end of the scale is the professional service, where you handle each request uniquely and spend a lot of time and effort on getting each request right. Lawyers and doctors are examples of a professional service. Here, your critical success factors are focused on personalized service and providing the best solution possible. You’re not interested in delivering in shorter deadlines or at lower costs unless whoever is making the request is interested in giving up some of the customization that you provide (in which case, by the way, they should look to someone operating in one of the other modes).

These are just the two extremes, however, measured on two scales, the amount of time you spend satisfying a request and the amount of customization you’re willing to provide. The other two processes fall in between these two, either by changing the time spent on a request or the amount of customization provided.

For example, many organizations are trying to move to a mass service model. In a mass service model, more effort is spent on each request than a service factory does…but the amount of customization isn’t increased. Instead, a mass service provides a wide range of packaged results which a customer — with the help of the service — can select from. When you walk into a clothing store you’re often walking into a mass service establishment. If you see yourself as a mass service then you you’re keenly interested in determining what kinds of results your customers want and putting together a process that offers those results as prepackaged solutions. You’ll need to spend more time with each request than the service factory model but you won’t be providing the fully customized solution of the professional service. You’ll want to emphasize that you have a range of solutions that are “ready to go” (once you understand what’s needed in this case) and can be made to fit the request with a minimal amount of tweaking in predefined ways.

The fourth category is the service shop. A service shop doesn’t spend much time with individual requests, but tailors each request individually. If you’ve ever been in a hospital, you’ve been in a service shop: You didn’t spend much time with any particular nurse or other staff member, but everything is set up to ensure you got the medicine and care you needed (and not the medicine and care that the person in the next bed needed). As a service shop, you’re keenly interested in being able to recognize the problems you’re asked to solve quickly and connect a request to the “one right solution.” You need a lot of potential solution components that can be combined together in a variety of ways to create the right answer for any request. You want to discourage any effort to get you to spend more time on any particular request.

It’s not unusual for your employer to want the best of the two extremes (mass service and professional service): low cost, quick response, and fully customized solutions that take a focused effort on your part. Here’s something as equally obvious as my first sentence- you can’t do that. Instead, you’ll need to figure out what model best matches the need of your organization and convince your management that’s the best trade off between cost, effort, and customization. The best way to do that is set yourself up as that kind of factory and then do that very, very well.

By the way, manufacturing companies come in five categories, not four: Project, Job, Batch, Line, and Continuous (something else we discuss in the Strategic Thinking for Operational Managers course). I had been in a continuous process company while my new employer operated in a batch mode.

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