High flow operations: an investigation into the UK high-value manufacturing sector
Cardiff Metropolitan University
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The governments of developing and developed countries are all targeting higher value manufacturing in their pursuit of national competitive advantage. Competing with low cost products is no longer a viable solution to the UK. However, from an operations management perspective, there is little understanding of the high-value manufacturing (HVM) sector. From a Darwinian standpoint, HVM sectors cannot survive without being competitive and efficient which presents a major gap in the Operations Management (OM) body of knowledge. Specifically, little is known about how such businesses manage material flow. This theory-building research seeks to redress this imbalance and investigate the HVM sector from the perspective of material flow performance and the lens of the theory of Swift and Even Flow (SEF). SEF is one of the latest OM theories, and it has been heralded as an approach to high performance. Following an extensive literature review, this study found a major gap in the OM body of knowledge. The researcher designed two guiding research questions to frame this study: What are the design features of high performance operations for swift and even flow of materials? How are these design features related to performance in the context of high-value manufacturing? To answer the research questions, the researcher created a literature framework and tested this with academic and industry experts. The validation of the framework allowed the researcher to develop an empirical cross comparative case study methodology from a realist perspective using purposively selected businesses. Ten case studies were selected, using the Technology Strategy Board definition of HVM, and the selection was based on a high probability that the businesses would include sectors where the performance of businesses would vary. Multiple management level informants provided data to the researcher, which allowed for a rounded and systems approach to the organisation to be undertaken. The latter being a deliberate attempt to adopt a socio-technical systems perspective and to overcome the criticisms that OM is poorly integrated with the wider businesses fields of study. The use of data displays and qualitative analysis generated a range of interesting results. After a period of reflection, a questionnaire was crafted to test the findings of the first phase with a broader set of HVM businesses located in the UK. A total of 36 companies of 150 approached completed the questionnaire. The overall study findings show that high performance (material flow) is associated with the key organisational features of a driving feed-forward strategy, an empowered social system that controls the feedback from a robust technical system, and a partnering approach to suppliers and customers to ensure the smooth and even flow of materials. These organisations are synchronized by an effective communications system, and they learn and evolve to accommodate the environmental changes. The study confirms that the model of SEF is appropriate to the sector and understanding what organisational features must be developed to achieve higher material flow performance has added to this theory as well as opened new a potentially fruitful areas of support to such industry by the UK Government.
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