Does flexible product development complement or contradict lean product development?

December 2007 Quick Tip

This depends on what you mean by lean. Although lean manufacturing is a clear topicessentially, the Toyota Production Systempeople have interpreted lean product development in many ways. Katherine Radeka and Tricia Sutton nicely lay out five quite different varieties of lean product development in “What is ‘lean’ about product development?” Published in Visions, June 2007 (Vol.31 Issue No.2) pg 11-15.

To too many people, lean means simply to “lean out” the process, that is, to cut the cost of development by accomplishing more with less. Consequently, I will use this interpretation, knowing that others may look at lean development differently.

If our objective is to reduce the cost of development, whether lean or flexible development will be cheaper depends completely on how much change you face in your project. If you don’t expect much change, lean development will be less costly because many of the flexibility techniques incur extra costs, for instance, adding interfaces that will contain change or exploring alternative designs to keep your options open.

On the other hand, if you expect lots of change, flexible development will be cheaper because change is generally costly due to the replanning, rework, and waste of changing course. Flexible development reduces the cost of change by making it easier to switch to an alternative solution, even relatively late in development.

This is why I emphasize using flexibility techniques only when and where you expect change. You should not use them on every project and not even on every part of a projectonly in the areas of a project or product where you face considerable potential uncertainty or change. Then use lean techniques elsewhere.

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