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 Getting Manufacturing's Voice Heard

by Dave Biggs

"You know, we are doing better. Not perfect, but much better." Coming from Abby, that's a significant comment. Her official title is "New Products Material Planner." Unofficially, she has been accused of being the self-appointed resident critic. Having the responsibility for planning the parts for new product projects can have that effect on the best of people.

It wasn't so long ago that product development was an activity that was dominated by one department. The department might vary from company to company -- Marketing in one, Design in another, and Engineering in yet another. Many factors have caused a change, but it all comes down to customers being more informed and more demanding. They want the latest technology or fashion, they want it now, and they want it at a low price.

Companies use to compete by just being a technology leader, or a marketing leader, or a process leader. Now they have to be good at all three. Knowledge from all functional areas of the enterprise has to be utilized. It even requires knowledge from sources outside our enterprises, like customers and key suppliers. The trick is how do you get everyone involved without slowing down the development process?

Fifteen years ago, companies like Abby's began to realize they had to change the new product development process. Manufacturability and Quality had to be designed into the product to meet the customer's demands. Back then, the catch phrase was concurrent engineering, meaning that business and manufacturing processes are designed at the same time as the product. As people understood the need, many techniques were tried and many of the early adopters experienced a competitive edge.

A decade ago, the term "multifunctional teams" became popular and co-locating the multifunctional teams became a means of concurrently designing the processes and products. Again, the early adopters experienced a competitive edge. But even with these two advances, many lessons of the past are forgotten because not everyone can be on all the product development teams. So, just what are companies doing to include the experience and knowledge of all the Abbys? What methods and techniques get everyone's knowledge involved and actually shorten the overall development cycle?

A current focus of attention is the concept of "corporate learning." Corporate learning is best defined by example. In an organization of 100 people, one person might touch a hot stove. Mother Nature has wired the person to individually learn the lesson and not touch a hot stove again. If only individual learning is in place, the other 99 people have to go through the same painful experience to learn the lesson. When an organization has corporate learning in place, all 100 people learn the lesson when any one of them touches the stove. Unfortunately, humans don't naturally come wired to "corporate learn" and specific tools and techniques are required.

There are a lot of corporate learning tools. In the last few years, techniques like "enhancement lists" have been discussed in dinner meetings and explained in books like MAP (Market Aimed Products). Another effective corporate learning tool is "design guidelines." It's unfortunate that a different label has not been chosen for this tool because many people assume they know all about design guidelines. To the contrary, audits of product development practices reveal that a majority of companies don't use this tool in an effective manner and very few understand the subtleties that make this tool work.

One of the ways to go wrong is to confuse a guideline with a policy. Policies have the connotation of a "thou shalt" type of document. With that comes the burden of the commandments being correct and the need for extensive review before a new commandment is added. Using the information as a guideline and trusting people to determine what is applicable at the time of use allows much more freedom in the process of adding to "corporate memory."

Let's suppose that in the later stages of a new product design, we discover that we have overlooked the need to get regulatory agency approval for the product. Having missed this requirement during product definition, we now have to redo some of the development work. These late-in-the-game discoveries are painful lessons that cause budget and schedule overruns. Life is full of lessons and, unfortunately, they keep being presented to us until we learn them. In the business world, they keep being presented until we "corporate learn" them.

One way to "corporate learn" the lesson is to put a reminder in the design guidelines to consider regulatory issues during the definition of new products. If the document is only a guideline, these reminders can be added without much review or administrative overhead. This greatly simplifies the process. The bottom line is when the process is simple people will participate. Conversely, if we make the process difficult, people won't participate.

Abby works for a snack food company. Let's look at a design guideline she has provided. The guideline is to "use one of the standard webs for film." Film is the material used to make snack food bags. One way Abby's company stays ahead of the competition is to use standard web widths and materials for the film. That way, the film supplier can count on building up standard web stock and then printing the required image on the film at the last minute. This practice provides some economies for the film supplier and also shortens the film lead time. Problem is, without the reminder, new people or even some old hands forget to use the established standard webs. This leads to either a custom web with longer lead times and higher costs or a redesign in the middle of the project. Since Abby has outlined the standard webs in the design guidelines, the product development process has gone a lot smoother and she doesn't have to attend every new product development meeting to make it happen.

The technique works in any industry. Consider the electronics business. A useful design guideline here is to standardize on the drill sizes that are used to make circuit boards. All too often, circuit board designers use a wide variety of hole sizes in circuit boards. This causes manufacturing -- inside the company or in a supplier's organization -- to have to buy a wide variety of drills. It also complicates and lengthens the setup process on the drilling machine. In actual practice, a very limited number, say 14, drill sizes will cover most all circuit board needs. However, without an effective memory tool like design guidelines, the learning is lost and the practice drifts back to using an excessive number of drill sizes, which increases the cost and stretches out the lead time. Used as a guideline, this won't unnecessarily reduce the designer's flexibility when a non-standard drill size is actually required.

Using corporate memory tools to enhance corporate learning doesn't require a large project and expensive software. It's just common sense. Maybe it's too simple to get people's attention. Want to conduct a sobering test? Ask for your company's design guidelines and see when the last time they were updated. There is an interesting saying that sums it up, "If we don't learn from history, that's alright, we'll get another chance." The best alternative is to "corporate learn" -- starting today!

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