Cracking the Code of Mass Customization: New MIT SMR Paper

Most companies can benefit from mass customization. The key is to think of it as a process for aligning an organization with its customers’ needs.

Mit sloan spring 2009 issues In the current issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review (Spring 2009 Issue), Fabrizio Salvador, Pablo Martin de Holan and I discuss how mass customization should be not any longer seen as a specialized business strategy but as a bundle of capabilities that could make sense for most businesses.

In the paper, we suggest that mass customization is not some exotic approach with limited application. Instead, it is a strategic mechanism that is applicable to most businesses, provided that it is appropriately understood and deployed. This kind of thinking also is the underlying logic of our upcoming Mass Customization Executive Education Class at IE Business School.

In the paper, we suggest three common capabilities that will determine the fundamental ability of a company to benefit from mass customization thinking:

(1) Solution Space Development.  A mass customizer must first identify the idiosyncratic needs of its customers, specifically, the product attributes along which customer needs diverge the most. (This is in stark contrast to a mass producer, which must focus on identifying central tendencies so that it can target those needs with a limited number of standard products.) Once that information is known and understood, a business can define its “solution space,” clearly delineating what it will offer — and what it will not.

(2) Robust Process Design.  Next, a mass customizer needs to ensure that an increased variability in customers’ requirements will not significantly impair the firm’s operations and supply chain.  This can be achieved through robust process design — the capability to reuse or recombine existing organizational and value-chain resources — to deliver customized solutions with near mass-production efficiency and reliability

(3) Choice Navigation. Lastly, a mass customizer must support customers in identifying their own problems and solutions while minimizing complexity and the burden of choice.  It is important to remember that, when a customer is exposed to myriad choices, the cost of evaluating those options can easily outweigh the additional benefit from having so many alternatives. The resulting syndrome has been called the “paradox of choice,” in which too many options can actually reduce customer value instead of increasing it.  In such situations, customers might postpone their buying decisions and, worse, classify the vendor as difficult and undesirable. To avoid that, a company can provide choice navigation to simplify the ways in which people explore its offerings

But a company does not have to apply all three capabilities in full scope together. For many companies, it already is a great step forward to just work on one of these capabilities to get more customer-centric without, however, having to master the full complexity of a mass customization system.

Read the full article and learn more how these capabilities can be implemented in practice. MIT offers the full paper for free after registration on the SMR website. You also can purchase it there  ($6.50) for further distribution.

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About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.