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New Product Development Quick Tips 2006

How can I make our project management more flexible?

December 2006

When you are working in an environment subject to change, traditional project management does not work very well. Extensive upfront planning is a waste of time when plans are likely to change frequently. Instead, use rolling wave planning, where you plan the next stage well, the following one moderately, and only sketch longer-range ones. The planning rolls forward a stage when you reach the next stage.

The same goes for other traditional project management approaches. Project completion can no longer be measured in terms of deliverables delivered when these are subject to change (measure value delivered to the customer instead). Corrective action no longer means changing project activities to conform to the plan when, in fact, the plan may be the culprit (due to change). You can no longer reward project managers for following the plan when it may no longer be the best way of reaching the goal.

But the biggest change of all is in project risk management. In a traditional project, risk management that is built into the project plan works well. However, in a fast-changing project, risk management isn’t just part of the plan — it is the plan. You build the whole process around mitigating risk. You reassess risks frequently, and risk determines what you do first. If change is rampant, you are likely to have unknown risks, so-called unk-unks. They require even more vigilant treatment, as shown in an excellent new book Managing the Unknown: A New Approach to Managing High Uncertainty and Risk in Projects.

How far you stray from traditional project management depends on how much change you are encountering. But remember, if you aren’t encountering change, you aren’t innovating!

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How can I develop products more flexibly by changing our decision making?

October 2006

How and when you make decisions is a critical skill in developing products flexibly. The basic rule is not to make a decision until you must – what we call the last responsible moment (LRM). When you make decisions before this, you close off options, thus reducing your flexibility.

There is much more to the LRM than I can cover in this short note, but it is important to understand that this is not procrastination. Instead, it is a matter of recognizing early that there is a decision to be made, noting when its LRM will occur, and starting to collect information to aid in making it better when its LRM arrives.

Another critical aspect of flexible decision making to appreciate is that many of the approaches we use to manage development projects force us into making decisions before their LRM, thus restricting our flexibility. Such systems include phased development systems (for example, Stage-Gate®); conventional project scheduling, budgeting, and planning; and upfront product requirements specification. Consequently, the ability to maintain flexibility requires us to revisit such systems and reconfigure them to defer the nonessential decisions. Approaches such as rolling wave planning and the use of product visions do exactly this.

Fortunately, this is a rich area, and there are many tools available to make decisions more flexibly. These include decision trees, real options thinking, consequence tables, framing decisions before making them, and internalizing the LRM.

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How can I develop products more flexibly by strengthening teams?

September 2006

The last few Quick Tips have covered various technical means of increasing the ability of your product development to accommodate change, but the “Agile Manifesto” makes it clear that individuals and interactions — that is, teams — come before these more technical approaches. So what can you do to help your teams to respond to change faster?

One is to cultivate generalists who can switch roles quickly. There is a limit to how far you should go with this, but most organizations cultivate and reward specialists far too much at the expense of their generalists.

Another is to clarify — in advance — the areas of authority that the team has, so it has the power internally to make the most common kinds of changes, and it knows clearly when it must consult with management. I see a lot of wheel-spinning on such issues.

Co-location is an old topic and one that is increasingly difficult to accomplish in today’s global workplace, but there is no substitute for it when you need quick, accurate communication to change course quickly. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to gain much of the benefit of co-location even when most of your team is dispersed.

Finally, since communication is at the heart of flexible teams, make sure that your communication technologies are working for you. For instance, if email inhibits or slows communication, establish team concurrence on how you will use email to overcome your biggest problems with it, based on your team’s experience.

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How can I develop products more flexibly by exploiting set-based design?

July 2006

Set-based design is an integral part of Toyota’s industry-leading product development system. It has great power for enhancing your ability to make design changes later and less disruptively.

Set-based design is a process of exploring options, understanding trade-offs between design variables, and identifying and imposing existing constraints on the design. In other words, you are mapping out the design space without making any commitments as to where you will be in that design space. Thus, you are deferring commitments but building your ability to move very quickly to a commitment when you need to.

Contrast this with more normal point-based design. In this approach, you start with an assumed design, check its suitability, and move on to a better solution in an iterative fashion. Point-based design brings you to a solution faster, but it provides no information about designs close to your path of progress. If something changes, you have no information about alternatives in the design space and must start iterating all over again.

The set-based approach is not natural. The point-based approach is built into engineers’ bones. It is the basis of calculus, which is the starting place of an engineering career.

One concern about set-based design is its cost. We do not have any relative costs for the two approaches, but set-based seems to involve more work, especially if there are no changes. On the other hand, Toyota uses it regularly for relatively mature products (little change), and Toyota is the acknowledged leader in automotive design efficiency.

For more on this, see our list of references, especially the Sobek article.

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How can I develop products more flexibly by exploiting experimentation?

June 2006

Experimentation includes not only experiments but prototypes, simulations, analyses, and any other process that involves trying an idea out to learn more about it. It can be done in many media: plastics, metal, circuit boards, silicon chips, molecules, and software.

Experimentation is a powerful tool to gain flexibility because it improves your anticipation and foresight. You can explore an area of the design to learn more about it — how it behaves, where its limits are, what it cannot do, and what it costs. Then if change occurs in this area, you are prepared. You know what choices you can make, how they will perform, and what the side effects of them are.

Effective experimentation is not a random search, however. Each experiment should be carefully designed and based in a clear hypothesis. Without this discipline, the essential learning will not occur. Keep notes on the conditions of each experiment and the conclusions you can draw from it. Then plan the next round.

This may seem expensive, but computer technology has made many types of experimentation ten to one hundred times faster and cheaper than formerly, which opens vast new possibilities for trying things out in advance. Like other flexibility techniques, it is cheaper and more feasible if you can limit the areas of likely change in the design and then only use the tool there. That is, consider flexibility a selective tool rather than a universal one.

For more on this, see our list of references, especially Thomke’s book, Experimentation Matters.

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How can I develop products more flexibly by exploiting product architecture?

April 2006

Product architectures span a range from integral (visualize a bowl of noodles) to modular, where functions of the product remain physically distinct. Modular architectures are powerful tools for isolating change to certain parts of a design, so that if one part changes, the change doesn’t trigger massive redesign.

In fact, this is such a powerful tool that your biggest problem in applying it is likely to be competing ways of applying it. Modular architectures are also valuable for improving manufacturing or distribution (as opposed to design) flexibility, reusing designs, or improving testability or serviceability. So you will have to choose carefully among these business objectives. If you choose design flexibility as your objective, you will probably have to choose further which parts of the design are most likely to change and thus could benefit most from being modular.

It follows that product architecture is too important to business objectives to be left as solely a technical decision.

To use modularity as a flexibility tool, select the portions of the product where your information is the shakiest or the areas most likely to change. Then use architecture to build “fences” (interfaces) around these portions to isolate them. But don’t over-modularize, which can become expensive. Also, once you have established interfaces, you will need a way of policing them, since they tend to decay over time as designers make compromises.

For more on this, see our list of references. Another important book on product architecture is appearing this month, but I cannot comment on it because I haven’t seen it yet.

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How can I develop products more flexibly by working with customers?

March 2006

Customers are — or should be — the starting point for any new product. Unfortunately, customers change their minds or do not know what they want when you start designing. If you are really going to listen to customers, you must find ways to accommodate the changes that they will bring.

Some developers attempt to skirt this issue by freezing the product specifications before starting design, but a previous Quick Tip “How can we complete our design work if marketing keeps changing the requirements?” showed that this is neither feasible nor wise. If you freeze the specifications, you rule out any guidance customers can give you.

There are several things you can do to improve your flexibility and openness to what you can learn from customers:

  • Use an incremental approach. Incorporate now only what you are certain customers want, deferring other items until you have better information.
  • Work more from a big picture. Focus on a product vision, which is likely to remain stable, rather than the details that are likely to change.
  • Create personas for classes of your customers.
  • Find and involve lead users (see the Democratizing Innovation review) to provide leading indicators of change.
  • Discover ways unique to your company to keep in touch with you customers.
  • Last, make sure that your designers have a direct connection to some customers, rather than receiving unintentionally filtered information through marketing or sales.

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What is “green” product development?

January 2006

We are slowly realizing that many of the Earth’s resources are finite, and, in the end, things must balance. This has big implications for product development, which often depends on proliferation.

According to Jacquelyn Ottman, a pioneer in the field, “‘Green’ product development, also known as design-for-environment or eco-design, is about minimizing impacts upon the environment at every stage of a product’s life, from concept, design, raw materials and production, through to distribution, marketing, use, and disposal/recycling.”

You can determine the “greenness” of a product by using a tool called life cycle assessment (LCA), which helps measure the impact of a product on the environment.

The following four design strategies will generally reduce environmental impacts:


  • Design for Recycling: Save money or new raw materials and meet customer demands for waste disposal and recycled content; even exploit a new design aesthetic by using recycled materials in designs.
  • Reduce Toxicity: Impacts to air, land, and water can affect humans and animals. Reducing them can also save money, reduce liability, improve marketability, and accelerate development by eliminating legal hurdles. For instance, Nike has eliminated PVC from its footwear.
  • Energy and Fuel Efficiency: Reduce electricity generation, the single largest source of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and protect against rising energy prices by using energy-efficient technologies. Toyota’s hybrid Prius wins in fuel efficiency while setting new standards for responsible cars.
  • Provide a Service Alternative to Physical Products: The iPod, with its downloadable tunes, replaces physical CDs; consumers do not need physical products, just the service a product provides.

For more, visit www.greenmarketing.com.

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