The Flexibility Paradox: Achieving Ambidexterity in High-Variety, Low-Volume Manufacturing

Publication Type:
Journal Article
Global Journal of Flexible Systems Management, 2018, 19 pp. 69 - 86
Issue Date:
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© 2018, Global Institute of Flexible Systems Management. The ability to simultaneously increase operational efficiency and undertake organisational innovation has become a cornerstone for the long-term prosperity of organisations. For manufacturing small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that produce a high variety of customised products at low volumes (HVLV), achieving this so-called organisational ambidexterity poses significant challenges. HVLV manufacturers are designed to facilitate maximum flexibility in the manufacturing system; however, it is this same flexibility that can hinder the ability of a HVLV manufacturer to achieve organisational ambidexterity—bringing to light an apparent trade-off between two seemingly contradictory objectives. Hence, in this paper, we investigate the relationship between flexibility and ambidexterity in the context of HVLV manufacturing as well as the use of different management practices to manage this relationship. We construct a conceptual model by adopting a paradox-based view of tensions using insights from an extensive literature review. Building off the contributions of paradox and organisation theory, this conceptual model demonstrates the multi-dimensional and dynamic nature of tensions between flexibility and ambidexterity as they manifest as much from salient factors (regarding social phenomena and individual cognition) as they are from latent factors (through the complex interactions of organisational elements). By moving beyond the dominant paradigm of efficiency-driven research in HVLV manufacturing, we provide managers with unique insights into the role flexibility plays in achieving ambidexterity to help facilitate better informed decisions taken by them. Further theoretical and practical implications are discussed as well as potential areas for further research.
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