A Theoretical Review of Flexibility, Agility and Responsiveness in the Operations Management Literature: Toward a Conceptual Definition of Customer Responsiveness

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International Journal of Operations and Production Management






Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to study the often overlapping use of the related terms flexibility, agility and responsiveness in the operations management literature to clarify differences between the terms.
Design/methodology/approach – Drawing on the notion of the ladder of abstraction, a conceptual differentiation between the three terms is proposed.
Findings – Based on the most common associations of the terms in the literature, the paper proposes a hierarchical interrelationship between the terms in that: flexibility is most commonly associated with the inherent property of systems which allows them to change within pre-established parameters; agility is predominantly used to describe an approach to organizing that provides for rapid system reconfiguration in the face of unforeseeable changes; and responsiveness commonly refers to a system behavior involving timely purposeful change in the presence of modulating stimuli.
Practical implications – As managers of manufacturing firms strive to improve the performance of their organizations in a highly competitive environment, the paper provides a useful enhanced understanding of the relative roles that flexibility, agility and responsiveness play in their operations strategies. This in turn will enable them to better focus their competitive strategies and investments.
Originality/value– While confusion between the meanings of these terms has been noted by others, the paper is believed to be the first to consider the three terms together and thereby propose a differentiation between them.