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After I finished a series of mass customization webinars last week, I was discussing the issue of "people dependencies" versus "process dependencies" with the host of the event.  I suddenly recalled a story going back some 20 years that had slipped from memory that illustrated this point beautifully.

I was with a company offering highly-configurable disk and tape storage sub-systems for every computer Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) had ever produced.  About half of our orders were for new systems while the balance were for add-on upgrades that would be installed in existing cabinets already installed at customer sites. 

Our process for defining and ordering the highly-configurable products was dreadful.  Sales would indicate what they needed and one person—the woman who ran Order Administration—figured out what was required to load the orders into the computer system.  We were completely people dependent.

Like most technology companies, most orders came at the end of the month and quarter.  In order for a sales person to get a booking credit and the booking commission they were entitled to, the order had to be accompanied by a signed purchase order and be loaded into our computer system before the month closed. As you can imagine, there was a bit of a resource contention problem getting orders loaded.

The woman running Order Administration set up a program to prioritize incoming orders. And, no, I am not making this up. Those sales reps who sent her flowers would be assured of priority processing.  I heard that roses were given precedence over less opulent floral arrangements. At month-end, Order Administration had more flowers than a funeral home.

I designed and implemented a process that allowed sales reps to submit the exact input needed by Order Administration to enter the orders for new systems or add-on upgrades directly into the computer system by mere mortals in the Order Administration department.  And, best of all, flowers no longer had to be submitted to get the orders processed.

I can recall only one person being really unhappy with the new system.  Can you guess who it was?  A lot of sales reps told me how grateful they were for the fact that they were no longer held hostage to sending flowers to get their orders processed.


Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, author of Mass Customization: An Enterprise-Wide Business Strategy and blogger who resides in Silicon Valley. He helps his clients conquer the challenges that plague manufacturers of configurable products. He can be reached through his website at