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 Taking Full Advantage of Product Development

Brand new product, same old problems.
How many times do we see the same problem repeated again and again?

by Dave Biggs

The difference between the companies that grow and take advantage of marketplace opportunities and those that seem to struggle just to manage yesterday's problems is "corporate learning." The best way to define "corporate learning" is to contrast it with individual learning. When an individual touches a hot stove, the lesson is learned very quickly. Suppose that person belongs to a 100-person organization, but learning is on an individual basis only. The other 99 people have to go through the painful and time-consuming process of each touching the stove to learn the lesson.

When the tools and methodologies are in place and all 100 people learn the lesson when just one person touches the hot stove; "corporate learning" is said to be in place. Mother Nature wired us to be individual learners, but did little to provide us with a natural corporate learning ability. So it's understandable when companies repeat the same mistake time and time again while many people go through an individual learning process. Understandable, yes -- acceptable, no.

There have been improvements. Concurrent engineering and product development teams have at least given Manufacturing a voice in the product development process. But lessons learned in manufacturing, and other departments for that matter, still get left out of the new product development process.

But there is good news! There are tools and techniques that help product development teams access knowledge that resides with non-team members. Looked at from a second perspective, people in Manufacturing can use these same tools to participate in the development of new products without having to be full-time team members.

The Right Tools

Business success is a two-step process. First, identify the highest priority customer needs. Second, be the best at fulfilling the needs. Pretty basic, isn't it? But without the right tools, it isn't so easy. Being the best at fulfilling the needs means continuously learning and applying the knowledge to make improvements.

In new product development processes like MAP (Market Aimed Products), several tools and techniques make the development of new products a company-wide effort. Past lessons in marketplace needs, product technology and business processes must all be considered to optimize new product decisions. But even companies that have progressed to multifunctional product development teams have discovered that everyone with important knowledge can't be a full-time team member. People from the shop floor, assembly people, key suppliers, certain customers, field sales people, along with many others, have knowledge that is essential to the success of new products. So the team approach must be augmented with methods to involve non-team members and even people from outside the company.

Enhancement Lists

An example of these tools is the Enhancement List, a chronological record of comments from all sources (manufacturing, sales, marketing, customers, engineering, finance, management, and others). The list acts as a corporate learning tool to collect people's thoughts on how existing products and business processes can be improved. A hypothetical list demonstrates this idea ...

Sample Enhancement List

  • June 94 - Make the hand-carried unit lighter. Terry S., Ajax Corp.
  • June 94 - Provide a DC power supply. Kerry T., Western Sales Region
  • June 94 - Get hazardous area approvals. Kerry T., Western Sales Region
  • July 94 - Increase the memory. Tom S., Engineering
  • July 94 - Increase the battery life. Kim W., WXZY Company
  • August 94 - Provide the unit in different colors. Tommy D., Marketing
  • August 94 - Have the components laid all in one direction for more efficient assembly. Derek Y., Manufacturing
  • August 94 - Provide voice input instead of keypad input. Tommy D., Marketing
  • August 94 - Create a wireless data connection to download data. Joan D., HAL, Inc.
  • September 94 - There are too many options and it is difficult to manage order entry. Besides, this number of options is viewed negatively by many customers. Sales Person A
  • September 94 - There are too many transcription errors occurring in the order entry process. Customer Service person

Easy to Participate

Enhancement list comments can be short and don't have to contain a lot of detail. If people are allowed to jot down only a sentence or two instead of writing paragraphs, the likelihood that comments will be submitted is increased. In place of long explanations, the comments are documented with the name of the provider and the date, so development teams know who to contact for more details.

There is another reason to make it easy to participate. An important thought may be lost if there is too much delay between the revelation and the documentation. Who hasn't had a great idea, but by the time they got around to writing it down, it had slipped away?

A Designated "Keeper of the List"

A training objective with Enhancement Lists is to tell people where to send the comments. A "keeper of the list" is designated so everyone knows where to send comments or where to go to review existing comments. The designees may be product managers, product introduction engineers, or marketing people.

Agree to Review Everyone's Input

To encourage participation, everyone must be assured that his or her comments will be kept and reviewed during new product planning. So all comments are put on the list. A handshake is established between the people providing information for the list and the people using the list. On one hand, everyone knows that their comments are kept and reviewed, on the other hand, there are no guarantees to incorporate all the suggestions.

Doesn't Rely on Human Memory

As a corporate learning tool, Enhancement Lists insure that past lessons are remembered. Corporate learning is different than individual learning. Since the Enhancement List does not rely on human memory, gone should be the days of sitting around the product planning table trying to remember who said what and who wanted what. Even as people move to other responsibilities, the essence of the lessons learned are still available to product development teams.

Used to Provide Feedback

Enhancement Lists need to be used in two-way communication. In one direction, people are making comments to some future product development team via the list. The team then reviews all Enhancement Lists for any information relative to their project. The results of the reviews are used to provide feedback to non-team members. It is as important to communicate issues the team thinks will not provide value as it is to communicate those issues that will provide value. Using two of the example Enhancement List statements demonstrates this point.

  • July 94 - Increase the battery life. Kim W., WXZY Company Team judgment: This would definitely make the instrument more useful to the customer.
  • Aug 94 - Have the components laid all in one direction for more efficient assembly. Derek Y., Manufacturing
    Team judgment: This wouldn't be a worthwhile thing to do.

The second statement alerts Manufacturing to the fact that the team is deciding not to incorporate the component layout suggestion. If manufacturing has strong feelings, the issue can be pursued further. In the interest of soliciting participation, any provocative issues should be highlighted.

Sometimes people avoid pursuit of provocative issues because of the conflict that occurs. But anytime there is a difference of opinion, you are going to have conflict. The choices are -- you can have the conflict early in product planning activities, or you can have conflict late in the project after the product is designed. The Enhancement List is used to get differences of opinion on the table and resolved as early as possible.

Easy to Implement

The power of the Enhancement List tool is obvious. The concept is simple and straightforward. The familiarization training for a person can be done in an hour. It doesn't require a large investment in software or capital equipment. Email makes it very user-friendly, but even without Email, short memos or phone calls get the job done. The largest cost is familiarization training and even with purchased training materials, this cost is small.

Low cost, big returns. Makes you wonder why everyone doesn't keep enhancement lists!

Other Tools

Several tools and methods can be used during the Definition Phase to involve non-team members in the definition of new products. The definition flow diagram shows the flow of how these tools might be used.

  • Market Position Statement
  • Opinion Gathering
  • Enhancement List Review
  • 2nd Opinion Gathering
  • Failure Analysis Records Review
  • 7 Ways Session
  • Design Guidelines
  • Create Plans

The use of multifunctional teams has made product development more of a company-wide endeavor. But all the people who have pertinent knowledge can't be on the team. Tools like Enhancement Lists must be used to augment the team concept and take advantage of all the knowledge in areas like Manufacturing. It's a Win/Win!

All Contents Copyright � 2002 R. D. Garwood, Inc. All Rights Reserved.