Preston Smith's Corner

New Year’s Resolution Check-up

2001 Product Development Management Columns

Two loggers headed into the woods. From one you could hear a chop-chop-chop continuously all day. From the other, it was more of a chop-chop-pause, chop-chop-pause rhythm. At the end of the day the corporate metrics team went into the forest to collect their numbers and, to their amazement, found that the second logger had felled twice as many trees as the first one. Why? He took time periodically to sharpen his axe.

Did you have a New Year’s resolution to “sharpen your axe” relative to how you were going to develop your new products in 2001? How is your resolution faring so far this year? Lost in the rat race?

Of the articles available for download on our Website, one of the three most popular ones relates to axe-sharpening: “Your Product Development Process Demands Ongoing Improvement” . From its popularity, I conclude that there is no lack of interest in the principle of ongoing improvement. The problem – just as with other New Year’s resolutions – is in the implementation.

I believe that there are two reasons why our well-intentioned resolutions don’t quite happen. The first is that we don’t budget for them. Say that you want to reduce delays and improve decision quality of your development team that is dispersed in New England, France, and Thailand. You need time to understand just where the time is going and where the roots of the poor decisions are. You will need more time to implement fixes and train people once you understand the root issues.

Where will this time come from (given that you are already badly overloaded)? The answer is really quite simple. It will have to come out of effort you are putting into developing new products. Yes, this means that you will not develop quite as many products this year as you do this initial “sharpening.” This is the crux of the matter. I liken it to paying taxes. None of us likes taxes, but if we don’t pay our taxes now, we will pay dearly in the future for poorly educated children; bumpy, congested roads, and pollution. This is why taxes don’t come out of discretionary income.

If you are ever to improve your development process so that you do not keep suffering the same difficulties, you will have to make your “taxes” mandatory, coming right off of the top of your resources.

This brings us to the second point – and to a breakdown in the tax metaphor. The beauty of development process improvement is that you can decide just how much tax you want to pay. You can pay no tax, but we have just considered that option. Conversely, the mistake that most of us make is to initially tax ourselves too heavily. Then, when the tax becomes too onerous, we quit altogether. This is just what happens to most New Year’s resolutions about this time of year. They were too ambitious to be sustainable by ordinary mortals.

The trick is to pick a (non-zero) tax level that you can sustain, and then commit yourself to maintaining it right off of the top of your resources. In business terms, think of it as an investment in future competitive strength. You are building a corporate asset that has value. In fact, every development project contains the raw material (bits of learning) needed to improve your process. You must decide what portion of your corporate resources you will devote to mining and polishing these gems before they slip away.

Whether you are the CEO or a lowly designer, this is a perfect point in the year to reassess any resolutions you made to improve product development this year. Do you have plans? Are they being followed? Do they depend on individuals over whom you have limited control? Do your plans need to be scaled back to be sustainable? Does the whole program need to be restarted?

Once you have a sustainable plan, the article mentioned in the third paragraph above may help you, as may ” Learning from Your Development Projects,” which appeared in the September 1997 issue of this newsletter.

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

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