Before the Industrial Revolution, everyday items such as shoes and clothing were made to order and designed to a particular person’s specifications. Then, during the 18th century, people began to build machines that could manufacture products in factories and at scale. Each of these approaches had its value proposition: personalization and craft on the one hand, efficiency and consistency on the other.
Today’s customers and consumers are looking for all of these qualities and more. They want both the individuality of bespoke goods and the value and convenience that industrialized manufacturing methods provide. As a result, both established and new companies have created business models that enable a productization strategy to deliver varying combinations of personalization, efficiency, and value in a repeatable manner.
For example, Nike and Warby Parker let people choose the materials, color, and style of their made-to-order products, from the shape of their eyeglass frames to the color of the iconic swoosh on Nike TrueFit shoes. Companies from Molekule to John Deere have productized their offerings such that the experience, insight, and service are as much a part of the product as the air purifier or utility tractor itself.
Amy Marks, head of industrialized construction strategy and evangelism at Autodesk, believes that the opportunity to productize goes far beyond consumer goods, extending to the construction industry, as well. “I was in a presentation recently, and the speaker was talking about how phones and cars used to be made versus how they’re made now: They’re vastly different,” Marks says. “Then, he showed how houses were made then and how they’re made now. It’s almost exactly the same.
“We have not made much progress toward changing the way we design and manufacture houses and buildings,” she continues, referring to the past few centuries. “And the problem is that when you get to more complex design and technology embedded within these buildings, you’re talking about a different animal. Today, we are not well equipped to understand the complexity, variation, and scale of buildings to make sure we’re building them more efficiently over time. Unless you can productize construction, you will not truly be able to apply the technology that will unlock unbelievable potential.”
But lack of insight and inefficiency aren’t the only drawbacks to the way firms approach construction today. “Forty percent of the waste in our landfills is construction waste,” Marks says. “So we’re talking about changing the way we build—not just for efficiency and value, but for a more sustainable industry so we can continue to design and construct buildings; get more people involved in trades, architecture, and design; and create more sustainable societies. Because if we don’t change the way we’re doing business, we’re not going to exist on this planet.”
Of course, Marks says, this is far from a simple task. “When we talk about applying a productization approach to construction, we’re not talking about one product in one industry,” she says. “This is a complex ecosystem with siloed industries that don’t necessarily connect to each other or have the same value proposition.”
Marks believes that adapting a productization strategy to the construction industry is challenging but possible and necessary. Some of the barriers to real business-model innovation are tool- and process-based, but many are cultural—steeped in years of tradition, practice, training, workflows, and even definitions of value. Following are her three recommendations for beginning this process.
1. Bring Silos Together
The first step in business-model innovation is to bring stakeholders from different teams and disciplines together to better understand areas of alignment and misalignment, as well as potential opportunities. But that alone is not enough to enact real change. “Just getting those people in the same room doesn’t mean they’re going to give up getting paid for what they normally get paid for,” Marks says. So the next step is to use technology to establish a shared foundation for understanding.
2. Use Technology to Create Shared Understanding
Building a single source of truth is the next critical step. “We are in a space where there’s so much information that it cannot exist only in people’s heads—it has to have the right level of detail and be accessible in a neutral location where we can apply tools such as machine learning, robotics, and automation to benefit many stakeholders at once,” she says. This is critical not only in the context of a single project but also in the institutional knowledge that grows from multiple teams’ experiences over time.
3. Start With a Key Process, Test, and Learn
As many leadership experts have pointed out over the years, culture change is often the greatest challenge of all. As a result, Marks believes it is important to choose a first process to productize that will give all stakeholders a sense of shared purpose and buy-in—and, critically, become more comfortable applying these approaches to other processes and applications. “As people see the success, they’ll want it in other places, and that can begin to build a shared knowledge base and a set of best practices,” she says.
Marks acknowledges that this level of change is difficult. It requires vision, willingness to test and learn, and the patience to take the long view. “We’re not going to get to dramatically different results with the same behavior,” she says. “So get ready to be uncomfortable because you’re going to have to behave differently.”