Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Definition of the Term “Mass Customization”

Mass Customization is an academic term, attributed to Stan Davis in his book “Future Perfect” where he writes about “mass customization, the production and distribution of customized goods and services on a mass basis.”

The term is often mentioned in connection with manufacturing and change management: After “Future Perfect” and then soon Prof. Pine’s book "Mass Customization: The New Frontier in Business Competition" big companies began considering customized versions of their existing products. The conversation turned to making mass production lines flexible, and creating a system that allows interaction between producer and customer.

Keep in mind that this was in the 90s! The internet had just hatched, social media still 20 years or so away. Manufacturing had just discovered Kanban and Just-In-Time production 10 years ago- mass customization required on demand production! I’m not saying that mass customization was completely impossible for the companies of that time - but it definitely proved to be a tough cookie.

So people thought of mass customization as a big promise - that didn’t end up coming true. A “nice idea”, but still an “oxymoron”. Today, mass customization is still associated with that chasm between theory and reality, despite reality being much closer to theory than ever before- leaving us “mass customizers” looking for a new term, and the rest of the world in confusion about all this terminology floating around. 

Given the disappointment with the idea and the confusing about terminology, it might not be surprising that the term mass customization has been stretched tremendously. The biggest leaps in interpretation I’ve heard all relate to the customization of services - and if you think about it, of course a haircut at the hairdresser is “customized” to your head shape (thankfully), and yes, they do cut a lot of hair there - but can this really be mass customization? I think not. The term has also been used to describe rental bikes in cities (“customization of mass transportation”) and ATM’s (customization of service since you can tell it how much money you want out of it).

Personally, as much as I like getting a hair cut made for my head, the right amount of money, I think it doesn’t help to define a term like mass customization so loosely. My definition is more something like this: “Making customized goods on-demand with the efficiency of mass production.”. And yes, that term is still looking at the topic from a production point of you - so stay tuned for my other terms to get the custom[er] angle.

"Design Your Own" and "Create Your Own" are just a manifestation of mass customization - more about that in a later blog post.

Further Reading:

Term Wars: Personalization vs. Mass Customization by Prof. Piller


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