Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to present an empirical study of supply chain flexibility,
asking: what specific inter-firm practices are used to achieve increased flexibility in buyer-supplier
pairs and in the wider supply chain or network, and how do these practices and effects interact?
Design/methodology/approach – The approach taken is a qualitative study of a network of 16
inter-related manufacturing companies. Semi-structured face-to-face interviews with senior
representatives from each company.
Findings – A wide range of supply chain flexibility practices are identified, some confirming existing
research, some additional. These are grouped into ten categories, and two over-arching themes are
found. First, firms use various forms of outsourcing and subcontracting to reduce their own need for
internal flexibility. The second related insight is that, having externalised the need for flexibility, firms
improve flexibility of the whole chain by engaging in committed relationships with counterparts. The
authors term the ability to change counterparts “configuration flexibility” and the ability to change the
timing, volume and design of supply “planning and control flexibility”. Therefore, it is suggested that
firms make complex trade-offs between the two in the interest of achieving overall supply chain
flexibility. These are presented in a model to allow for future refinement and testing.
Research limitations/implications – Supply chain flexibility is a strategic objective, but is not
achieved by all members of supply chains aiming for as much flexibility as possible on all dimensions.
The identification of the supply chain flexibility practices provides a starting point for further
theoretical developments as well as for practice. In particular, further work is required to understand
the interplay between the two types of flexibility identified.
Originality/value – Study of inter-connected supply chains, model linking...