Preston Smith's Corner

Getting Beyond Flavor-of-the-Month Process Improvements

1999 Product Development Management Columns

Product development managers seeking to enhance their development process are often caught on the horns of a dilemma. On one side you have general concepts, such as concurrent engineering or distributed data management, that can be too vague to be useful. On the other side you find specific success stories that may not fit your goals or circumstances.

In reality, each manager’s situation is different, depending on what you have accomplished so far, your current objectives, resources available, specific industry, competitive or regulatory pressures, cultural and style issues, and the amount of pain expected if you continue on your current course. Therefore, you will have to create the solution that constitutes “best practice” for you in view of where you are now. Although I cannot create this solution for you, I can offer a process for finding it:

First, identify some gaps between how you develop products now and how those whom you admire seem to be doing it. There are several ways to find these gaps. One is to study periodicals, such as this newsletter, the Journal of Product Innovation Management, or trade magazines in your industry. Another is to read books on product development, leadership, teams, or the like. Conferences and seminars are other wonderful sources.

In uncovering these gaps, it is important not to judge whether they are appropriate—or even achievable—for you to choose. They are your raw material. From them, work to specify what your organization should be doing differently. Then narrow this list to what you personally can do in the next thirty days to initiate an improvement. Because you are the only one over whom you have direct control, this step is very important if change is to be initiated.

You now have three lists:

  • Gaps (which may or may not be beneficial to you)
  • Long-term organization changes (which often presently have no initiator)
  • Short-term individual initiatives (which usually have limited power for substantial change)

Though I have noted the negative side of each list, each has great value, as can be seen by transforming the items on your lists into a map like the one shown. On this cost—benefit map, benefits should be specific to what you want to achieve, for instance, shorter cycle times, better cycle-time reliability, or lower product cost. Conversely, consider the cost axis broadly, including not only the financial cost but also the risk, the underlying cultural change required, and the negative impact on other desired objectives.

This comprehensive interpretation of cost means you’re unlikely to find opportunities in the “No-Brainer” quadrant. We all have plenty of brains and have been thinking about these issues for a while: Any No-Brainers were probably exploited long ago.

Your third list generally maps into the “Quick-Hit” quadrant. These are valuable for three reasons. First, they are the actions that are easiest to get started on. Second, they provide some diversification relative to the bigger investments. Most importantly, they build momentum, moving you into bigger opportunities by demonstrating that improvement can indeed occur

Most of your second list will map into the Investment quadrant. The gaps list could map into “Investments” or “No Ways,” depending on their perceived benefit.

Don’t write off the “No Way” items. Your most potent options often hide on this list. It’s just that you are not ready to acknowledge them yet. These are often items that require a major change in viewpoint or behavior, changes such as co-locating a development team or dedicating manufacturing or marketing people to the team. Once you can see the potential benefit, they move into the “Investment” quadrant.


(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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