R ecently, a senior manufacturing leader at a large Mid-West food producer told members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council about a major strategic shift at his company. Increasingly health-conscious and willing to experiment with food, consumers less often defaulted to the same breakfast cereal and salad dressing they had always chosen. They demanded a continuous stream of new choices.

This necessitated a new manufacturing strategy. Long production runs of a few big brands would need to give way to shorter runs of a lot more products. The big food producer would need to get a lot more agile, and everyone on the manufacturing team would need to get a lot more innovative.

It’s not only makers of consumer products that are trying to cope with these kinds of changes in customer priorities and expectations. Manufacturers buying from other manufacturers increasingly are demanding smaller lot options, shorter lead times, and creative, value-added service options. And that’s requiring manufacturers to get more innovative about satisfying those shifting customer demands.

This shift in thinking is reflected in the latest Manufacturing Leadership Council research on enterprise innovation. Eighty-five percent of manufacturers surveyed for the study said the pace and competitive importance of innovation are accelerating, and the largest group—36%–said customer requirements and expectations are driving that acceleration.

While making production more efficient and speeding new products to market are still core areas of innovation focus for manufacturers, understanding and responding to customer expectations is an objective that is clearly on the rise.

So how can manufacturers both accelerate innovation and make it more responsive to rapidly-shifting customer expectations? First, by creating a more collaborative approach to innovation that leverages ideas from inside and outside of the company. Although many still appear to be struggling to embrace such a collaborative approach, manufacturers believe it will significantly enhance customer engagement.

And, second, manufacturers should strive to construct an innovation culture in their companies that engages everyone, including operators on the plant floor. Only if all contributors understand customer needs and expectations and the ways in which competition is changing will manufacturers be able to come to market with the very best ideas.  M