seeding ideas

Preston Smith: Flexible Product Development Expertise

PGSmithPreston G. Smith received a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford University and served for the next 26 years in engineering and management positions in the aerospace, automotive, highway safety, defense, and diversified industries. In 1984 he initiated a corporate program to accelerate product development, and for the past twenty years, he has been an independent management consultant specializing in advanced product development techniques. Consulting and training engagements for products as diverse as supercomputers and footwear have taken him to hundreds of venues in twenty-five countries.

Smith’s interest in development flexibility has been brewing for years. His first book, Developing Products in Half the Time (with Donald Reinertsen; originally published in 1991), covered the core of flexibility—iterative and incremental development—in its fourth chapter.

Another part of flexibility, responsive experimentation (Chapter Four of Flexible Product Development) includes rapid prototyping, which Smith started following in 1988. More important, super-rapid prototyping machines, often called 3-D printers, appeared in 1996. Although some people denigrated 3-D printers as a “poor man’s rapid prototyping system,” he saw the very low costs and rapid responsiveness of such systems as opportunities to change the way organizations develop new products radically by harnessing this quick, inexpensive feedback. He followed these developments closely, having keynoted at a rapid prototyping conference in Australia in 1995 and participated in six others in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the United States since then.

Over the past decade or two, Smith has helped product architecture (Chapter Three of Flexible Product Development and the sixth chapter of Developing Products in Half the Time) to move from a solely technical matter to a business strategy topic, although its role in enhancing flexibility during development is still not widely appreciated.

The tipping point for him was in 2004, when the Agile Development Conference (ADC) invited him to keynote. Agile development aims precisely at flexibility, except that it only pertains to software development. Having started his career in the 1960s immersed in programming, he had been observing software development for years. It impressed him that software development projects have experienced more than their share of spectacular failures, but this community has studied these failures, done impressive research on methodologies, and improved—to a greater extent than product development in other fields, he believes.

Notwithstanding that software developers have a lead in understanding their methodologies, the 2004 ADC invited Smith to speak—characteristically—to see what they could learn from an allied field. They rather confused who was the teacher and who was the student. As a result, he attended other agile conferences since then, joined the Agile Alliance, and was a founding member of the Agile Leadership Network—and he took many notes. As a result, what the agilists have achieved in software development inspired him to write Flexible Product Development, which provides comparable means for developing other types of products flexibly.