Scale Up Skeletons #8 – Understand the customer’s process

Skeletons can be scary monsters or useful teaching-aids, depending on your attitude!  This series of blog posts pulls together a few short lessons from skeletons that have jumped out to disrupt the growth journey in companies that I’ve been involved with, together with reflections on what I would do differently next time around.

This one didn’t appear a real problem at the time; hindsight helped me see it in a different light…

The story:

When designing production equipment, there’s often a balance to be struck between process through-put and batch-size; larger batch sizes generally lead to higher throughputs but cause more disruption to a continuous production line as products are no longer coming out at regular intervals.  Some industries have standard batch sizes which are used across all processing equipment (semiconductor wafers, for example, are always processed in cassettes of 25 wafers) and others, such as mobile phone assembly, work with variable batch sizes depending on the process step.

At one production equipment company I worked for, we had lots of discussions internally about the optimum batch size for our process.  Some engineers argued for a small, fast machine that could process individual items at high speed – this would have given the most flexibility but was the most challenging to deliver given that the process needed time at the start and end of the cycle to pump down and vent up the vacuum chamber.  Other engineers argued for a larger machine that could process large numbers of items for each pump-down and vent-up cycle, leading to higher overall throughputs.

Cost and throughput led us to conclude that bigger batches were the better solution.

What we didn’t consider was the impact that this would have on the adoption of our process into the production environment.

The impact:

Larger batch sizes present more risk to production – especially if the items being processed are high value.  If the process goes wrong, you’ve potentially scrapped a lot of product and left the next few steps of the production line starved of work.  As we were a new process and equipment supplier, the customers were understandably nervous!


With hindsight, the large batch size of our process was a major barrier to adoption.  The economics of a smaller machine would undoubtedly have been more challenging (more equipment would have been needed to deliver the same output), but we would probably have made more sales and earlier as we would have been seen as a lower risk.

We made our decisions based on our priorities, not those of the customer; we took the easier route from an engineering perspective, which made the product less attractive to the customer.  We still made good sales, but I always wonder whether we could have made more if we had paid more attention to our customers’ process flows.

In the next instalment of this blog, I’ll talk more about the importance of independence and autonomy at all levels of a business.

Telegraph Materials offers practical support to fast-growth businesses bringing new materials-science based technologies and processes to international B2B markets.  For more information, see, where you can also find the previous editions of this blog series.

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