NPD Tales

Ideas Thoughts and Comments on Product Development

Discard or Fix?

I’ve blogged in the past about Lean Product Development and how I see the real process improvements can only be realised by considering the fundamental principles behind lean (identification and elimination of non-value added activities) and applying them to the non-linear non-repetitive world of product development.

On a number of occasions, in my role of facilitating organisations on their lean journey we have encountered existing processes or rigidly adhered tools which have been identified as a major source of waste.  Over complicated ‘gates’ in stage gate methodology, bloated QFD matrices, ‘rubber stamp’ specification sign-off process that delay progress there are many other examples.

The temptation to rip up and destroy these wasteful ‘offenders’, replacing them with something new and ‘Lean’ is indeed great – and I’d admit to encouraging such zealous behaviour in the past.

But recently I helped a group explore how to remove the waste from their Stage Gate process but still leave some of the principles of the process intact.  For an organisation with very high capital costs associated with their product development right from the start of the project it made sense.

If it’s broke then consider fixing it rather than throwing it away…

Lean Product Manager

Many of my earlier posts have focussed on the topic of applying lean principles and thinking to product development (just click on Lean Product Development in the tag cloud on the right).  If your product development function embarks on a Lean journey, what are the possible outcomes that will impact the role of Product Manager?

Many sources of waste are associated with the large batch processing of information at various steps in the development process.  This is particularly relevant in dynamic markets where the requirements of a product can move as fast as the development process.  A common solution to this is to think of the development process as a larger number of rapid iterations with tighter customer feedback (Batch Size and Cadence).

In this situation, a Lean Product Manager needs to find a way to introduce some element of rapid feedback into his work but balance that with the more strategic elements of product management – positioning, pricing, benefits, roadmap, vertical market development and holistic stakeholder management.

In addition one of the common outcomes along the lean journey is the identification of the need for an Entrepreneur System Designer (ESD) or Chief Engineer an individual who is charged with developing a successful product by creating and communicating a vision for the overall product and inspiring a team of developers to strive to meet that vision (in contrast to a more remote management role that is focused on delivering success against a project plan).

Isn’t this a Lean Product Manager?

Again – unless you can ensure that your ESD is capable of managing the strategic elements mentioned above, you run the risk of a product that deviates from your roadmap, focuses too heavily on the requirements of a small number of important customers and/or provides new features for free that could easily have presented an opportunity to capture additional revenue.

The shift in requirements for a Product Manager operating with a Lean Product Development function is substantial but not seismic.  It is important to involve product management in your lean journey and work together to see how you can meet the challenge.

Proselytising Lean Book – Missed Opportunity

I was asked to review a book on Lean – in particular the chapter on the authors’ ‘revolutionary design technique’.  The rest of the book focused on operational matters (including supply chain) and all looked very convincing to me, but I’m not an expert in Lean Manufacturing.

However I was disappointed in the focus of the chapter on product design.  Apart from a brief mention of using Stage Gate Methodology and an interesting section on concept generation and selection, the other 30 pages were exclusively focussed on ensuring that the production processes were taken into consideration during the design of the product.

I understand that the authors have a background in manufacturing improvement and would agree that Design For Lean is an important subject, but I feel there was a missed opportunity to include the exciting concept of taking the fundamental principles behind Lean Manufacturing and see how they can be applied to the very different world of product development.

Just click on Lean Product Development in the tag cloud on this page to see genuinely revolutionary 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…

Lean Product Development – A Roadmap

Previous posts have dealt with the concepts behind Lean Product Development and highlighted the most useful tools.  When embarking on any process transformation project it is important to understand that there is no clear set of directions but your roadmap needs to be developed around a framework.  The following points help define the framework around which you can build the map for your lean journey.

Identify champions. The lean journey is not simple or easy.  Established ways of working often need to be challenged.  Enthusiasm needs to be invoked to encourage involvement.  Positive results need to be identified and communicated to convince others.  The whole package requires strong leadership.

Engage others. Identification of waste and the creation of ways to eliminate it are often best achieved in a team environment.  Involvement of other functions is critical.  Strong facilitation is vital

Start small. Identify pilot projects to achieve early success and facilitate the development of methods and ideas before scaling up

Identify waste. Use brainstorming, structured reviews and process mapping to identify the wastes and where they occur.  Waste is often found in specification generation activities (generating useless information), activity driven reviews (waiting) and resource allocation (disruption and distraction) – but you can find it elsewhere!

Eliminate waste. Combine reviewing best practice, applying lean ideas and creative problem solving to devise methods of working that do not generate waste.  Implement and validate these new methods on pilot projects.

Review Frequently. Drive progress and maintain enthusiasm by frequently reviewing progress, defining actions and communicating success

Scale up. Build on pilot project success and devise a clear plan to scale up and roll out – but don’t forget to review progress frequently!

Lean Product Development – Entrepreneur System Designers

In larger companies, it is very common to find the new product development project managers who are very remote from the aspects of the process that generate real value.

Their goals are often to satisfy senior managers rather then customers, they are often focussed on administering the project rather then driving the design.  Assembling project plans, chasing work, nagging the engineers, tracking deliverables and reporting progress are the main parts of the role.  They are often bored and don’t inspire the development team and the net result is that progress is reduced to a crawl.

When looking at companies who have firmly instilled the concepts of Lean into their product development activities it is common to find the product development is driven by someone whose responsibility is defined more succinctly as being charged with developing a successful product.  The individual is expected to create and communicate a vision for the overall product and inspire a team of developers to strive to meet that vision.  There is a need for the individual to control the development process but the focus is on keeping things moving and eliminating waste.  Equally important is the need to make fast and correct decisions based on balancing risk, time, cost and technical achievement.

The individual possesses characteristics that are more in common with a director or vice-president in a start up company than a pen pushing project co-ordinator.

Shu Ha Ri

The concept of Shu Ha Ri is rooted in Eastern philosophy and martial arts.  It describes the stages that a student practitioner must follow to learn and apply a technique.

Shu (’keep’, ‘protect’) – the stage where you follow the defined methodology precisely and comprehensively.

Ha (’detach’, digress) – the stage where you start adapting the techniques to suit particular circumstances.

Ri (’leave’, ‘transcend’) – the stage where your knowledge and skills allow you to blend and develop the techniques in a creative and unique way.

When exploring a new methodology for product development it is easy to fall into the trap of having only a limited knowledge and experience of a particular concept (like Stage Gate or Agile or Lean) and leaping straight to the ‘Ha’ or ‘Ri’ stage without having really explored or understood the basics by passing through the ‘Shu’ stage.  This can often have disastrous results…

Of course the key is to find ways of accelerating your progress through the ‘Shu’ stage.

Lean Product Development – Value Stream Mapping

In the world of Lean Manufacturing, Value Stream Mapping (VSM) is an extremely valuable tool that helps you break down all the activities involved in each of your production steps (concurrent and sequential) and identify where you are adding value and where you are creating waste.  The same mapping technique can then be used to plan your future state where much of the waste is eliminated.

Is this tool of value in Lean Product Development?

Some argue that it is a useful tool and can be used to great effect to highlight how much time is wasted in waiting states.  My experience has shown that it’s a great starting point and generates a lot of healthy (if a little heated) debate but falls short of delivering really valuable insight.  The tool assumes a fairly linear and repetitive process.  Participants in the exercise struggle with the conflict between the inherent variability of  the data they are expected to provide about their processes and the demand for the VSM to graphically display things like ‘work time’ and ‘wait time’.  Other tools must be deployed to gain a more comprehensive view of waste in the product development process.

Lean Product Development – Batch Size

In an earlier post I introduced the idea of cadence in product development activities.  Of course if you’re going to introduce the concept of reviewing work on a regular basis instead of event or content driven reviews you need to think about the time period between the reviews or in lean manufacturing parlance the batch size.

Obviously there is a balance to be struck between reviewing a large amount of work (with the associated risk of amplification of errors) and having engineers spending too much time reviewing their work.

One important factor to be considered is that frequent regular reviews become a simple low overhead task compared to infrequent irregular reviews where there is a tendency to settle down for a day of coffee, biscuits and talking.  In general, your batch sizes right now are likely to be much larger than optimal.


Look at it from any angle – a design engineer who is constantly interrupted is not likely to be working efficiently.  From lean product development perspective interruptions are one of the most common sources of waste.  In more general terms interruptions do more to increase both time to market and flaws in product design.

Enlightened management of new product development should seek to create an environment where interruptions are minimised, but even in these cases, team members often naturally create their own interruptions.  As technology helps us become more connected this problem seems to be increasing.

As Jack Ganssle said “..if you respond to the email reader’s ‘bing’ you’re little more than one of NASA’s monkeys pressing a button to get a banana.”