Of the many lessons we are learning and have learned during this pandemic and the consequences of it, I would hope that one of them is that we do not go back to the days of super-short lead times.

I can understand why we got there. In the age of the internet and next-day delivery, it seemed the natural evolutionary point. But this is a very different sector compared to others and perhaps as we look on at quite extraordinary demand and lead times that are only getting longer, we decide that there is no longer a need to put ourselves under such pressure.

Sold as a USP

For as long as I can remember, most installers, good or bad, have had at least a few weeks lead time when it comes to fitting. In pre-pandemic times lead times for installation companies would vary from 4-8 weeks. As a result, lead time from suppliers for windows and doors was at least a few weeks. It worked. Installers had decent order books, it gave fabricators enough time to make their products without rushing, with plenty of time to plan ahead.

Then lead times became a USP. A tool for companies to win new business. It was around the same time when society was getting used to the idea of quick delivery times for other goods and services thanks to the internet transforming consumer spending. It wasn’t introduced to get installers out of a pickle, although it was useful for that if the installer was in need of help. But it was introduced to speed the entire process along, to entice installers with faster turnaround times on products. Brand new factories were even built around that idea.

So for the best part of a decade, we have been used to having composite door delivered in a matter of days. Shiny White windows inside five days. Even certain aluminium products, such as that from Origin, in two days. It revolutionised the residential part of our market in terms of production. It did also heap the pressure on the people on the factory floor to make sure everything got out to customers on time. The just-in-time manufacturing process was what helped to make this happen.

There was, however, the concern that by shortening lead times to such lengths quality would be compromised. For those factories built specifically to manufacture in such a way, this perhaps wasn’t so much of a problem. But there has been undoubtedly periods within the last ten years where general product quality has not been anywhere near as good as we would have liked it to have been as a sector. Personally, I would have been happy to sacrifice a few more days, or a week or two, to ensure that more products arrived on time, in full and in the best quality possible. That makes life easier for the installer and ensures the end-user is happy with what is being fitted.

Pandemic perspective

During this last year, we have all been doing a lot of analysing and reviewing. Looking at our processes. Assessing what we sell, how we sell it and whether we need to offer more or less choice. We have also been learning how to navigate a sector that is overselling and not being able to produce enough to meet that demand. In short, we’re still learning. We keep selling, keep ordering, but cannot keep up the pace further up the supply chain. Welcome to the new status quo!

What I think we have also learned is that the need for super-short lead times on the supply side is no longer needed. I can understand the lure of them in the pre-pandemic era. When installer lead times were measured in weeks and not months. When product supply was plentiful. When homeowner demand was steady. But we’re in a new era (for how long, who knows) where home improvements are at the top of people’s lists and investing in homes is a priority. Demand is going to remain very high for perhaps another 12-18 months. The idea of turning a composite door round in a few days is simply not on the radar any longer. It may not return for a long while.

I don’t think there has ever been a pressing need to have a bespoke, made-to-measure, customised product that fits into the fabric of a building produced and delivered so quickly. It takes 12 weeks for a new sofa because it has to be made to specific requirements. Kitchens are the same. Cars too. These are big-ticket items you wait a period of time for. To many, it’s a reassuring factor. Knowing that enough time is going to have passed for you to have confidence that the product has been made right. We should be looking at this for windows and doors.

It would also reduce the pressure on the manufacturing supply chain. Allowing just days for what is becoming a rapidly expensive product set to be made and delivered is a very high-pressure atmosphere to operate in. Mistakes are made. There is no additional time to put things right without it impacting delivery schedules. Personally, I cannot see super-short lead times coming back. We don’t actually need them.

Let’s spend more time perfecting manufacturing processes. Seek to ensure better product supply across the board. Employ more workers to spread the workload. We are in a unique set of circumstances here where incredibly long lead times do give us the opportunity to look at these areas and make investments in which will pay off in the future.

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