Flexibility Framework

The following framework allows managers to delineate each of the types of flexibility with which they may be concerned, in an unambiguous manner, so that more fruitful discussions can take place and more focused action plans be developed.

In order to characterise each important type of flexibility, a manager should answer the following questions:

  • Dimensions - What exactly is it that flexibility is required over - what needs to change or be adapted to?
  • Time Horizon - What is the general period over which changes will occur/ Minute-by minute, days, weeks, years?
  • Elements - Which element(s) of flexibility are most important to us? Which of the following are we trying to manage or improve:
    • - Range?
    • - Uniformity across the range?
    • - Mobility?

Some Definitions of Flexibility Concepts

Definition of Flexibility

Flexibility is the ability to change or react with little penalty in time, effort, cost or performance.


Internal or External?

Flexibility may be seen as both a set of capabilities (internal: "what can we do") and a source of competitive advantage in a particular environment (external: "what the customer sees"). For the purposes of both manufacturing improvement and the development of manufacturing strategies, it is important to distinguish the capability of being flexible from the competitive need it is intended to match or the customer related advantage derived from it.


Definition of the Manufacturing System

The definition of the boundary of the manufacturing system that is to provide flexibility is often a source of confusion. For this reason it is important to be clear about the system under discussion - are we talking about: the machine? the factory floor? the firm? or the firm in conjunction with its supplier network. We need to get this right to provide the most useful level for analysis.


Potential Flexibility or Demonstrated Flexibility?

Are you using the term flexibility to describe the potential of the organisation to perform a set of hypothetical tasks?


Are you talking about demonstrated abilities such as the provision of a broad product range?


Robustness and Agility

The definition of flexibility noted above includes the words "adapt" and "change". "Adapt" emphasises the ability to maintain a status quo despite a change (which may be internal or external to the firm). "Change" emphasises the ability to instigate change rather than react to it. Discussions can get side-tracked by individuals who argue that "ability to maintain status quo" is robustness or the "ability to instigate change" is agility. Both these are flexibility issues, and most situations demand types of flexibility which allow change that may be seen as both reactive and proactive: the source of the need for change depends on one's point of view, but is a separate issue from the ability to change.


Some "Categories" of Manufacturing Flexibility

  • Routing Flexibility
  • Volume Flexibility
  • Machine Flexibility
  • Product Flexibility
  • Program Flexibility
  • Labour Flexibility
  • Mix Flexibility
  • Long-term Flexibility
  • Design-change Flexibility
  • Action Flexibility
  • Short-term Flexibility
  • Operation Flexibility
  • State Flexibility
  • Expansion Flexibility
  • Process Flexibility


  • David M Upton, The Management of Manufacturing Flexibility, California Management Review, vol. 36, no 2, 1994.


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