NPD Tales

Ideas Thoughts and Comments on Product Development

Stand Up

There are times in some NPD projects or moments in the development of a specific team dynamic where there are a multitude of concurrent activities, a large number of people involved, interactions between tasks and most importantly many ways in which the whole thing can go off the rails.

Indeed there are some organisations where that is the norm…

In such a dynamic multi-faceted scenario even a weekly review meeting is just too infrequent.  But many project review meetings turn into long winded talking shops that preclude them being held any more frequently.

A daily stand up meeting might just do the trick – here’s some pointers on how to create value out of a short review meeting.

• Stand up, no chairs

• Same place and time every day

• Fifteen minutes, no more

• Control the attendee list – only those who are directly involved

• Each participant answers three questions

- What did you do yesterday?

- What are you going to do today?

- What obstacles stand in your way?

• Focus on removing obstacles

• Stop long winded discussions before they get going, note and action them for resolution outside the meeting

Most engineers have a dislike for review meetings simply because most review meetings aren’t run like this…

Customer Empowerment

In an earlier post (Collaborative Tools – Customer Involvement) I explored how the latest collaborative tools like SharePoint and SamePage are beginning to emphasise the value of customer involvement in new product development.  A recently published paper in the Journal of Product Innovation Management (Customer Empowerment in New Product Development) details some research on the same concept.

Illustrated with examples from Threadless and Muji (but they could also have included Yamaha with their EZ-AG Guitar) the authors describe the difference between ‘creation’ and ’selection’ empowerment and present the results of some research that shows a positive quantified impact from such close customer involvement.

Not every company can invite its customers to submit designs and let them vote which one will be used (like Threadless do with their T-Shirts) but it does seem to be worth spending a bit of time thinking about how you can tap into the creativity and decision making of your customer base…

The Wisdom of Crowds Revisited

My earlier post on the collaborative approach to portfolio management from Inkling prompted me to pick up my copy of The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki.

It’s a fascinating read whereby Surowiecki proposes and illustrates that a co-ordinated ‘wise’ crowd will make better decisions or solve problems quicker than a leader or expert.

Of course the devil is in the detail of what constitutes a ‘wise’ crowd – the author states diversity (of opinion), independence (from influence) and decentralisation (of control) as the key factors.

The other important issue is the efficiency and accuracy of the mechanism of co-ordination.  Technology obviously provides better and better ways of achieving this.

It’s not a theory I would wholeheartedly endorse but it’s certainly worth bearing in mind when the considered ‘wisdom’ doesn’t appear to be working…

A Fresh Perspective on Portfolio Management from Inkling

Nathan Kontny from Inkling introduced a novel idea associated with Portfolio Management.

Portfolio Management ultimately depends on forecasts and predictions of development cost, sales volumes and revenue to provide a method of prioritising projects.  With a nod to James Surowiecki, Inkling have produced a tool that facilitates a more collaborative approach to refining those forecasts and predictions.  By answering some simple questions based on the original ‘guesses’, multiple users have an influence on adjusting the values for expected launch date, development cost, ROI etc.

An example portfolio has been set up (Inkling Portfolio Management Example) and you can try the system out with your on collection of projects (Inkling Portfolio Management Tool).

The idea is still at prototype stage and Nathan is looking at refining it – particularly the parameters that people will be asked to give their opinion on, but it looks very interesting even at this early stage…

Standing up for the Pointy Haired Boss (for once)

Of course, I’m a huge fan of Scott Adams.  Yes, I  nod knowingly at the hilarious observations of Dilbert’s working life.

But from time to time I think someone needs to stand up for the pointy haired boss…

progress report dilbert

If he thought for one moment that Wally would pro-actively volunteer information on technical issues that endanger the successful timely completion of the project he wouldn’t need to ask the question.

The desire of many engineers to exist in an undisturbed vacuum only surfacing to tell someone that they’ve just missed a deadline is not something to be lauded (or encouraged).

Increasing NPD Productivity – People (2 of 5)

There are two sides to the ‘People’ aspect of increasing NPD productivity.  The first concentrates on the ‘mechanical’ resource issues.  The second deals with the human aspect.

Resource issues are important.  Project plans can only achieve their goal of realistically detailing future activities if the necessary resources are identified and allocated to the tasks that make up the plan.  Project management often falls apart because ineffective methods to plan resource requirements are used.  All too often a project plan is assembled with the assumption that the necessary engineers are allocated and available 100% of the time for the life of the project.  Whilst this is an ideal situation to ensure individual project success, it is inefficient and impracticable.  Equally common is the use of task dependencies to achieve a level resource utilisation with disastrous results as the project progresses.  Of course the most appropriate solution is to have a fully integrated set of project plans with an accurately defined common resource pool.  It’s not an easy job to do properly but it can provide an alternative to the plate spinning technique of resource allocation employed all too often.

Another area of interest regarding engineering resource is utilisation.  Even in the most organised and well planned NPD function it is common for more than 30% of engineer resource to be spent on activities other than those determined by the plan.  Working on the ‘wrong’ projects (helping out on other planned projects or spending time on ‘under the counter’ projects), administrative tasks and customer support are major contributors to this lost resource.  Measuring and setting improvement targets for utilisation is a key activity for increasing NPD productivity. 

Unfortunately many initiatives to increase the performance of NPD activities focus on these resource issues and ignore the human element – in effect treating development engineers as merely ‘assignable resources’.

The three key subjects to consider are motivation, skills and communication.  Finding ways to measure  these and improve them is a difficult but very important activity.  For some inspiration on these check out previous posts on Imposition, Boys Keep Swinging, T Shaped People and You Can’t Control What You Can’t Measure (last paragraph)

Plus since this is an overlooked subject keep an eye out for future posts and ideas.

Collaborative Tools – Customer Involvement

Collaborative tools such as enterprise wikis or more proprietary solutions like MS SharePoint and SamePage have generally focussed on improving internal communication.  In the field of new product development poor communication is a major barrier to effective performance and great benefit can be gained by intelligently deploying such tools.

There is an increasing emphasis from the vendors of these solutions to extend the scope of the tools to include communication with customers.  In the context of flexible product development or Lean Product Development the advantages of gaining continuous rapid feedback are of genuine benefit.

Of course the more customer facing parts of an organisation might (quite rightly) express concern at such close communication with the internal workings of the product development process (and in particular the individuals involved).  Coupled with that, there is the risk that the product development path may become too flexible and result in an unacceptable increase in time to market.

However with careful management the use of collaborative tools to increase customer involvement and feedback can only bring an improvement to the success of new products…

Colocation #2 – The Faction Factor

Most people recognise the importance of colocated teams and will strive to have all the members of a project or functional team in the same place.  However, there are often barriers to doing this and the second best option of having a small number of sub-teams in different locations is adopted.  Frequent communication is encouraged and the anticipated result is that the whole team operates almost as effectively as if they were all together in the same office.

Unfortunately, this scenario is an ideal breeding ground for factions.  Continuous off-line discussions within each sub-team can erode the group consensus.  Resentment and secrecy can build  up and this can then easily develop into emotional detachment.  The planned regular communication acts as an occasional pressure release valve but never really addresses the underlying differences of opinion.

More careful management that is aware of the faction factor and can take action to address the problems at the outset of it developing is the only answer.

Of course factions can also develop amongst groups who are all sitting in the same office, but the signs are much more obvious…

Colocation #1 – The Allen Curve

In 1977 Thomas Allen from MIT published the results of his studies into the effect of separation distance on communication within technical organisations.  He measured an exponential drop in the probability of two people communicating as the distance between them increased.  More than 20m away and there was a less than 5% likelihood in communicating once a week.

Of course the world has changed a lot since 1977 and we have an entire arsenal of communication tools at our disposal.

In 2006 Allen was standing behind his conclusions.

We do not keep separate sets of people, some of which we communicate in one medium and some by another. The more often we see someone face-to-face, the more likely it is that we will telephone the person or communicate in some other medium.

How much has the world changed since 2006?  Is the Allen Curve still relevant?

I’d argue that maybe the actual figures are inaccurate, as people are located further away from each other, the reduction in communication frequency is not as marked as Allen measured.  But the secondary effect of the quality or value of the communication for different forms of communication is now hugely important.