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Lean Approaches to Rapid Product and Services Development

Bringing new products and services to market quickly, that meet and ideally exceed customer expectations for value utility, needs to be at the forefront of businesses strategic and tactical activities going forward.  In the aerospace and defense arena the need for improvement is being driven by both the government and military as well as by foreign competition (Airbus comes to mind), who are attempting and often succeeding in winning larger market share every year.

Although technology can and should be a major area of focus to find ways to collapse product and service delivery times and improve results, I recommend that “good ‘ole Lean” approaches must be carefully integrated in a strategic and tactical manner as well.  In fact, I would argue that if you are not already heavily engaged in leveraging Lean approaches in your product/service design processes, it is reasonable to expect that 80% of the improvements you can make in the next year will come from adopting Lean approaches now.  Short-run improvements that involve technology advances, which are not underway presently, cannot be expected!  Collapsing lead times while at the same time improving effectiveness is critically important now and in the future.  Why wait?

We will examine several aspects of rapid product/service development and how Lean approaches can be leveraged.

Reduction of the Cycle Time (Lead Time) to Bring New Products and Services to Market

Batch-and-queue processes, and processes that run end-to-end that don’t have to be that way, drive lead times through the roof. Conduct Value Stream Mapping (VSM) activities to clearly identify the current state of the process.  Identify why each step takes as long as it does and what things tend to break-down – both where they are recognized and where they are corrected (reworked).

Here’s a tip:  Think critical path in your VSM activity.  Gather the right team members and create a current state map that replicates the last actual design-to-launch cycle.  Since complex products and services (like software development) usually, have a number of over-lapping process steps I suggest chaining-together on the critical path all those activities that have “finish-to-finish” relationships.  What this means, is if an activity cannot be completed without the previous activity being finished for a certain predictable interval, these processes have a finish-to-finish relationship if they can both be “in-process” concurrently.  An example: testing can start once the product reaches a certain completion point, but cannot be completed until the completion of the prior step.

Activities that happen in parallel to these critical path steps (the steps that dictate the through time of the process in the critical chain) can be shown in the VSM above and below with relationship arrows showing the point at which they must be completed, else they would delay the process.

After the team adds-up the through time and can account for the total duration of the current product/process development cycle based on current realities (not standards!) being experienced, the team can go to work.  If “rework” is in the development cycle, spend some extra time looking at the process steps where the rework is occurring: is the root cause occurring here?  Most likely we don’t clearly know the root cause or where the true origination point is at all!  This is where a rigorous round of root-cause analysis and even a full-blown PFMEA (process failure modes and effects analysis) or designed experiment can be used to ferret-out the true sources of defective results or variation.  Stopping causes for rework and variation can result in a 50% reduction in cycle time for any process.

Next, examine critically the activities in the current state that are on the critical path and thus dictate the “through time” of your process.  Especially in the design of products and services we must ask the “5-whys” for each step – especially approvals and reviews – being in the critical path and not concurrent activities.

Another useful approach is to develop a Takt time for your process.  What is the speed at which elements of the design process need to occur?  Process step cycle times that exceed this Takt value need to be examined – as they are likely bottlenecks.  This exercise is particularly valuable if the situation is one of multiple design projects being underway simultaneously, and competing for scarce resources, or worse causing “moving bottlenecks.”  Now, ask the question: what can be done to break these bottlenecks?  A Theory of Constraints (TOC) approach can be a powerful tool to use after using VSMs to uncover where to use them.

Increased “Value Utility” to Customers Delivered by New Product/Service Introductions

Do we really understand the attributes that the customer is looking for out of our process?  If there is any doubt, this would be a good time to ask some more questions.  A hint: examine your VSM and determine which process steps have their duration driven by customer requirements.  Do a Pareto analysis (80-20 rule) on these, and for the big hitters, get your criteria right.  This will give the biggest possible impact for the time and effort expended – and build better habits in the design process.  Nothing kills design process results like spinning our wheels on unimportant details, or worse, design features the customer does not care about at all.

Increased Delivered “First Time Quality” of New Products and Services

Nothing kills a new product introduction like a recall or re-design after a costly and time-consuming introduction to the marketplace.  Trust is destroyed and the resulting crisis dilutes the efforts of the entire organization, from design to delivery.  Spend some serious time analyzing past post-launch failures.  Engage in rigorous cause-and-effect investigations to narrow-down the sources of process output defects.  The trick is refusing to be caught up in symptom-like, apparent sources.  For example, refuse to accept “human error” as an assignable cause.  This is where the Lean concepts of error and mistake proofing can weigh in heavily.  Go back and task the team with finding ways to make the breakdown points more robust.  In design processes, this often involves electronic error proofing and identifying missed verification points due to a lack of involvement by down-stream operations in the development of the design.  A classic here is designing-in product or service features that the execution arm of organization is not capable of meeting reliably.  If there are two ways to put something together or interpret an instruction, this will be a high-defect process!  In addition, designs that call for certain tolerance in a specification limit for a down-stream process that is not capable of Six Sigma capabilities to meet this specification level is a recipe for disaster.

Lean Supply Chain Considerations

Getting our trading partners involved is an obvious but all-to-often neglected piece of the puzzle.  I have conducted many “Lean Supply Chain” discussions a number of times over the last few years in public forums and continue to be disappointed by the fact that very few industries really practice “partnering” in a meaningful manner.  On a scale of one to five, with one = complete partnership and integration, and a five = zero trust and cooperation, groups of companies I survey consistently rank as a four.  If your company’s self-assessment is any worse than a three, here are some things to start on immediately.

Let me give you a pointer:  It’s all about relationships.

Lean approaches, because they tend to gravitate to empowering teams of people learning to think differently provide a powerful and rapid solution to “relationship gaps” between trading partners.

Joint VSM efforts to begin visualizing wasted effort and sub-optimal information flows.  Properly constructed VSMs provide tremendous insights into the drivers of lead time, quality issues, costs and overall effectiveness of the supply chain.  Put functional leaders and subject matter experts from the point of attack (shop floor or service desks) together on this process, and I promise what is learned will outweigh the apparent cost of the investigation by 10X or more.  Finally, look hard at the delivery speed limitations of your joint VSMs – do they really have to take that long, or can we instead reduce response times to a level that truly differentiates these trading partners in the eyes of the market?

Joint Kaizen Projects hosted by supply chain partners to attack wastes and capitalize on opportunities.  Initially, these should focus on setup reduction, improving one-piece-flow and pull systems, accelerating the speed of information exchange, and eliminating wasteful activities due to procedures and policies all will dramatically impact the product development and introduction cycle time, cost and quality results.

A hint:  Do joint Kaizens before new product and service designs are well along.  Why?  Consider this:  70% to 90% of a new product or service’s eventual cost and quality capability is fixed by the design process.  Using Lean to improve on them later can only realistically affect a small percentage of the cost and capability.  The costs for changes “while it’s on paper” are minimized during design.  Creative approaches and ideas can be tried and fine tuned without taking valuable assets out of production or wasting large volumes of resources.

Joint Process Variation Reduction Initiatives with suppliers can have many positive effects on the results of product/service design process speed and first-time quality.  Involve your suppliers in evaluating the performance requirements of the product or service being developed.  What can be done to ensure that the intended results can be achieved in a robust fashion?  A tip: avoid over or under-engineering supplier components of the product or service being developed.  If there are poor communications with the suppliers they can be out-of-touch with design intent and in fact, be providing inputs that will be marginal or fail altogether in meeting design intent.  Conversely, the supplier may be putting a lot of cost into the product or service that is not providing a commensurate increase in customer value utility.

In summary . . . before you pop for that “next generation” software, throw a bunch of people at it or outsource your design processes, take a step back.  Achieving a dominate edge in your processes can be only months away if we learn to challenge our paradigms and then leverage waste-elimination and process variation reduction tools we already have, in creative ways . . .

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