Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Meshing innovation, product development and production, marketing and sales as a virtuous cycle 2

Posted in business and convergent technologies, strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on January 4, 2017

This is my second installment to a series in which I reconsider cosmetic and innovative change as they impact upon and even fundamentally shape the product design and development, manufacturing, marketing, distribution and sales cycle, and from both the producer and consumer perspectives (see Part 1.)

I began this series by invoking a simplistically presented baseline business model example, and by listing a series of issues that I would at least begin to address in this series after making note of it. And my goal here is to more fully set the stage for that more extensive narrative by more fully exploring that baseline example for use as a point of comparison, when considering more complex business and marketplace situations.

Let me begin at the beginning here, and with the fundamentals. I began Part 1 with a brief discussion-framing description of a business that makes light weight summer clothing and swimwear, stating that while they face cosmetic change requirements in their product development and production, they do represent a business that would belong to a very significantly settled, mature industry.

• I chose the apparel industry as a source for my baseline example, at least in part because I wanted to use a realistic working example that any reader would be familiar with, at least in basic outline. Most people routinely buy and wear clothing and we all see others wearing clothing, and in the diversity of styles, and of sizes and seasonal variations that are at least common in our cultures and in our communities. And we know the basic experience of wearing clothing to be all but universal for people, with exceptions to that distinguishable for being deviations from the norm (e.g. nudism.)
• And at the same time, clothing manufacturing has seen and will continue to see significant change, and in the materials used and in general fashions developed, marketed and sold, and worn – and certainly when considered long-term.
• But I return again to the issue of this industry’s basic maturity. Clothing is manufactured in large part from fabric that is cut according to specific patterns and to specific sizes, depending on the precise item design being manufactured to and the precise garment size being produced in the moment. And these pattern-specified cuts are then sewn together and with buttons, zippers and other details added as required, to make finished products. Yes, I have left out a number of significant steps here, but the fact that fabrics often have patterns, even if simple ones such as stripes is not centrally important here. And the same goes for lining up and orienting the fabrics that enter into this production, so patterns in their fabric align correctly across sewn seams. And to cite one further area of possible detail here, I have left out post-manufacturing processing such as ironing and the adding of sizing materials to the finished product in preparation for its being packaged for shipment, display and sale. These, I add, are all well established clothing manufacturing steps too. So the important point here is that clothing manufacturing involves sets of processes that have held consistently steady and certainly in basic outline for many of their basic details, for many years and even from generation to generation.
• Men’s pants, as a case in point have looked basically the same for centuries in the United States and in most countries – even if detail changes such as shifts from suspenders to belts for holding them up have taken place – as has the introduction of style differences such as cargo pockets for some designs. But aside from that and the fact that the founding fathers of the United States lived before the zipper was invented, pants that they wore were not all that different from pants worn today, and certainly dress pants that men wear today, as of this writing. And their grandfathers wore essentially similar pants too, for the most part.
• Women’s fashions change a great deal more than do those that men routinely wear. But even so, the basic inventory of types of apparel items worn by women has remained basically settled and for a long time now, too.
• And the flow of seasons has not fundamentally changed, with hotter summer weather and colder winter weather and in-between spring and autumn weather, and certainly in temperate and northerly climates. And clothing styles and types change seasonally to meet those predictably changing needs. In essence, what I am writing here is that the human body has not changed all that much as to form or function over the last many centuries, and neither have the basic types of weather that we wear clothing to protect ourselves from, so clothing that would go on us that had already been fairly optimized to meet need generations ago, has in many respects remained fairly constant at least at that level.
• So I wrote in Part 1 of the basic underlying stability that clothing manufacturers face, as they plan for and produce, market and sell seasonally appropriate items of apparel and with a range of styles and fashions, and with an ongoing flow of cosmetic changes that the market will like – as clothing design goes beyond simply addressing functional need while still (in general) seeking to address that too.

Now let me question and even fundamentally challenge some of the basic assumptions that I just built into that bullet pointed line of discussion.

• I briefly noted buttons and zippers in the immediately preceding points and I add hook closures and Velcro here too as yet other closure options. I also briefly noted the progressive introduction of new fabrics in my above-stated narrative. Every new innovation that is introduced into a product or product line, carries with it matching need for manufacturing innovation and adaptation as new approaches and new equipment and new skills are needed to use it.
• To take that out of the abstract, it takes different equipment and skills to add zippers to clothing, and in large volume and at high speed, than it does to shape and position button holes and add buttons, so they line up correctly on the finished product while it is being worn.
• And this brings me to a fundamental dichotomy that strikes to the core of what I am addressing in this short series of postings. And I begin addressing it from a consumer and marketplace perspective and with a very specific case in point example: zippers and how they have changed since first introduced.
• Consumers might see a change in their clothing, such as the shift from metal zippers to plastic ones as representing so small a change (for them) as to barely reach a minor cosmetic change level of significance – at least if both work and reliably so, and both meet their needs. And this perspective is important as it is the consumer and their purchasing decisions and actions that generate the incoming revenue for businesses that determines their success. So when clothing manufacturers made the switch from metal to plastic there, this was not much of a change from the consumer perspective – at least, to repeat a key detail here, when they both worked correctly and did not jam or break too quickly.
• And I note here that from a business competitiveness and a business profitability perspective, that consumers do in fact determine what is and is not actually innovative in what they are offered. I have noted this point in other postings and series here.
• But at the same the clothing manufacturers who had to make this change, had to innovate and more significantly change how they produce their products and with what equipment and with what skilled labor if they are to capture the savings of using less expensive to them zippers in their products. From an in-house, manufacturing process perspective this was a learning curve requiring change and it represented much more of a true innovation change and for them as well, and for their industry.
• To pick up on a detail that I noted from the consumer side of this dichotomy, I noted that this change did not reach even a level of significant visibility as a meaningful cosmetic change if the two types of zipper: older metal and newer plastic “both worked correctly and did not jam or break too quickly.” The first garments that came out with plastic zippers did show problems in quality control for what in retrospect were an unacceptably large number of cases. Businesses that bought these new and less expensive zippers for inclusion in their products had to learn what to look for to insure they were putting the quality into their finished apparel that they wanted there, representing their brand names. And they had to learn which third party parts providers would offer them the quality that they required for this and consistently so. That means their having to develop new supply chain relationships too.

And this brings me to a crucially important point. When everything works well here, it does not matter if the consumer barely notices a change in materials used. And that in fact can be a desired outcome where those consumers primarily or even entirely see these clothing lines (in the example that I am pursuing here) as continuing to offer the same high quality and good value for the prices paid for them, and when they are not looking for change in what they purchase.

So from one perspective, I am writing about what can be seen as genuine product innovation that is nevertheless invisible to the consumer, at least as an ideal. But perhaps more validly, what I am writing of here is innovation to the business itself and to its processes as it seeks to be more cost-effectively competitive in its industry – here, by reducing its production costs, at least long-term and with amortization of change costs in its systems accounted for, from adapting less expensive per-item materials.

• Here, what a consumer might see primarily as a cosmetic change – and a minor one as zippers are not usually prominent to a clothing item’s design appeal,
• Might be seen as a significant innovative improvement to the manufacturer.

I have noted a number of times in this blog that innovation is in the eye of the beholder. I note here, that this visibility aligns with where a beholder: a customer and consumer, or a business owner or manager, would see value and opportunity and need for improving them.

I am going to continue this narrative in a next series installment, where I will switch case study examples, and consider how restaurants that are under pressure, all too often respond to that as they seek to manage expenses while still maintaining incoming revenue. To put that narrative to come into context with this one, I have been writing here of a business change that can bring benefit to both consumers and businesses. I will turn in my next installment to consider the sometimes clashes between short term and longer term needs, and outcomes. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at Business Strategy and Operations – 4, and also at Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3 of that directory. And see also Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time and its Page 2 continuation.

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