- November 01, 2003, Michael M. Cone, Consultant
Accelerate the development of a new product and improve your chance of success by using structured product development procedures.
Product and process development is the most complicated endeavor of the modern corporation — and the most likely to fail. The development of a new coating process might start with the selection of the materials to be coated, or even their synthesis, and proceed through mixing, coating, drying, shipping, the customer's end use, and their customer's application. A new product can be even worse. In either case, every part of the organization is involved before the project is complete, and yet, until quite recently, development generally was considered the sole province of R&D, a function that tended to stand outside the regular business process.
While some corporations — and within those corporations, some individuals — were more successful than others in developing new products, there were few methods for learning from them and copying their successes. Structured product development methodologies arose to identify what practices the successes included and the failures lacked. Used properly, they accelerate development and streamline it, thus reducing cost, and enormously improve the chance of success.
New product and process development is the lifeblood of most manufacturing organizations, the route to an improved competitive position. Its absence is a guarantee of reduced sales, falling margins, and failure. Structured development processes are another aspect of total quality management; the well-known business results of the one apply completely to the other.
What Are They?
Structured product and process development methodologies are procedures that guide an organization through the data collection and decisions inherent to development. Typically, they divide development into a number of phases, and then separate those phases with formal decisions — based on the data developed during the phase — to continue forward, to cancel, or to repeat the phase.
In the coating industry these phases often include definition of the physical properties desired, selection of raw materials to achieve those properties, trials of different coating methods to make the final product, customer evaluation of those trial products, and refinement of the methods and product based upon customer input.
Each phase develops data that feeds the next phase. It is important to be as complete as possible. Figure 1 shows a typical matrix that might be used for technology development. The work is done by a cross-functional team containing all the expertise (including finance, marketing, production, in addition to research) that will be needed during development — in essence a miniature business. The decision-makers are the managers responsible for the business.
A great deal of field data supports the huge emphasis placed upon the continuity of the team — its members should not be reassigned during the process — and its independence — teams function between reviews without the unsought interference of the decision-makers. Equal emphasis is placed on the participation of the decision-makers — none should be absent from a review — and decisiveness — written material is presented before the review so the meeting can focus on rendering a decision on the spot.
There are many different consultants and a similar multiplicity of names, but Bob Cooper of the Product Development Inst. and his Stage-Gate process sums it up: The differences are important to specific implementations but are actually the result of the application of common sense.
How Can They Be Managed?
A structured methodology is an enormously difficult thing to adopt. It is a huge change in organizational behavior and presents hurdles similar to any personal change that one might attempt to make — except multiplied and made more complex by the politics and inter-relationships of the business. Maintenance of the process, the prevention of backsliding, and the improvement of it are similarly trying. If the process is not properly maintained, its performance deteriorates, and critics prove that rolling it back is a business necessity. The structured process defines the power of individuals and limits second-guessing; both of which may be seen as dangerous to the business.
Scientific and engineering personnel tend to view briefing papers and financial forecasts as bureaucratic. Managers may think reviewing them is not essential and are too ignorant to be decisive at the review.
To make it worse, managers often view difficulties with product development as the result of inability on the part of the staff; and working members of the organization know it is the result of managerial caprice. The truth lies somewhere in between.
Consulting work that examines product development usually reveals well-known but unvoiced weaknesses; this knowledge can be used to lay the ground for the installation of a process. If consultants then guide the organization to develop its own process, organizational buy-in is increased: The designers become proselytes who recruit more believers. PACE (Product And Cycle-time Excellence) is a method designed by management consultants PRTM to produce exactly this result while installing a phased development process.
Structured development resembles ISO in recording what has to be done, and then requiring it to be done. Like ISO, it can either accelerate change or end it. Also like ISO, an employee can be assigned to manage its improvement — a difficult job requiring the incumbent to innovate and standardize simultaneously.
The Role of Common Sense
The scientific method was the single most important step in the advancement of knowledge, but students in particular often see it as an obvious outgrowth of common sense and hence do not use it as consciously as they should. Expressing surprise at the length of time it took to develop quantum mechanics is analogous. It must be commonsensical as it provides the explanation for flame colors at which mankind has stared for hundreds of millennia.
I tend to view structured product and process development methodologies, and all the tools they advocate, as manifestations of common sense: quantum mechanics seen through the other end of the telescope, if you will.
Complicated manufacturing has written procedures. Development is more complicated; it should have procedures, too. As there is nothing the organization does that is more difficult, protracted, and fraught with error, we are foolish if we do not write down what it is we do. The steps we follow usually are very logical as shown in the Overview of Structured Development. After we follow the steps, we can go back and make them better.
We know from participating in group endeavors — team sports, committees, boards, the high school play — how badly everything is set back by changing just one member. Why should a development team be any different? In fact, it should be worse; it's more involved. Similarly, we all know we go forward fastest when the resources we need are at hand. Why, then, should we keep off the development team an employee who has a skill that will at some point certainly be required?
We all know how difficult it is to stop a deeply ingrained personal habit such as biting one's fingernails. Yet if the behavior is thought to be high risk, it's not at all difficult to stop: Very few organic chemists bite their fingernails. If the organization realizes how important development is to it, and realizes either that it could be done better, or that others do it better, then it is not far to realizing development had better improve right away.
Clear guidance and informed, timely decisions are things we admire because we know the effect they have on our personal lives. We should expect the same things from managers deciding the future of development and should be willing to give them the tools they need to be decisive. Conversely, managers are aware of the damage from a missed appointment — being stood up for a date — and must realize they cannot miss a review or come unprepared. The economic damage to the organization is parallel to the emotional damage suffered by the poor person stood up.
While all businesses argue over which financial measures are the appropriate ones, there is usually a consensus that financial results are the most neutral measures of the business. Progress can be measured against forecast cost, success against forecast revenues. The analytical tools are easier to apply, and more widely understood, than abstract yardsticks of technology progress, or numbers of sales territories where a new product has been introduced without mention of sales or concern about receivables. The detailed financial forecast for a development program provides the same generally understood indications of progress and the same warnings of problems to most of the employees who read it.
Finally, thinking about the large number of commonsensical things we are about to do, knowing how difficult it will be to coordinate them, how easily they can decay, and how much more success we will have if we continue to improve the process of development, why would we not ask for help when we need it, establish an employee to be its guardian, and make development change part of the structure? Why would we expect the structured process used in one business to be exactly the same as that used in another?
It's only common sense: Be conscious about it — as one is about quantum mechanics.
Michael Cone received a Ph.D. degree from Yale in organic chemistry. After a postdoctoral year he began work for DuPont as a research scientist. Over the course of 20 years, he worked in environmental affairs and occupational health, production management, finance, and marketing. He managed the research for Cyrel in the late 1980s. He also headed a start-up business and spent five years as an internal management consultant with a practice in new product and process development and total quality management. He left DuPont in 1998 to join a small private merchant bank. Today he is a private investor and sometime consultant on product and process development. He can be reached at email@example.com
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