Mass Customization: What it is and is not

I’ve noticed lately that a lot of folks are using the expression “mass customization” in situations where I feel it is inappropriate. Does this make me a purest? I hope not. I do have a problem when people hijack an expression merely because they think it sounds neat or it is catchy or trendy. I’m concerned about confusion that this creates.

“Mass customization” is not the same as “customization” or “personalization” of products. “Customization” and “personalization” end up with a customer influencing the end-item that they receive, but, that doesn’t necessarily mean the process through which the customization or personalization has occurred is “mass customization.”

“Mass customization” is an organizing principle for manufacturing products that starts with customer input and allows a manufacturer to produce an end-item with the same efficiency of a mass-produced product. It is an enterprise-wide process that I’ve written about in my recently published book.

“Mass production” is also an organizing principle for manufacturing products that is the antithesis of mass customization.

A product produced under a “build to order,” “configure to order,” “assemble to order,” or “engineer to order” schema does not imply in any way that mass customization is involved. Mass customization may be involved but often it is not.

If a business is not set up properly to accommodate great variety in terms of order configurations, there can be tremendous inefficiencies created that can only be corrected by adopting mass customization.

Mass production enabled great efficiencies because of the sameness of a product. As Henry Ford stated, “You can have it in any color as long as it is black.” Why did he say that? Henry Ford knew that introducing any variety into the mass production mix would increase costs which would, in turn, increase prices, something he did not want to do.

His vision was to produce automobiles on a large scale at low cost for a mass-market so more people could own an automobile. At that time, the marketplace would settle for sameness in order to own an automobile. The marketplace has evolved in such a way that there is a myriad of automobile brands, styles, colors, features, etc. Today’s marketplace would not tolerate not having a choice.

Mass production implies a “job” is opened to build a quantity of products that have an identical order configuration. Conversely, mass customization implies that the likelihood of 2 or more order configurations being identical is viewed as a coincidence.

I see the concepts of “mass production” and “mass customization” being applied to the manufacture of products by manufacturers. I hope this blog post helps you see it that way, too.

What do you think?

David J. Gardner, Mass Customization Expert

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