Friday, October 16, 2009

Lean Product Development

Thinking Lean is usually associated with manufacturing processes. Many people lose sight of how to apply lean concepts outside the manufacturing plant floor. Articles and case studies are readily available to assist someone starting their lean journey in manufacturing. Not so much is available for those in office environments, accounting departments, engineering teams or in service industries like health care.

While this blog post is geared toward lean product development (concept, design, engineering, production readiness), it applies to lean thinking in many venues. It may provide some insight on how to approach your lean journey.

How would you feel if you reduced your product design cycle by 50%. Kudos all around! How would you react if you were tasked by your boss to deliver your next design project to the market in half the time. How would you approach this challenge? These are the results that design teams are achieving through lean product development. Read on to discover how you can apply these tools in your facility.

In applying lean to the product development process, there are six key issues to explore; focus, clarity, alignment, ideation, WIFM and strategy. We’ll briefly explore each.


Lean thinking demands we develop our skill in identifying and eliminating waste. We focus our effort on the value stream – the things that provide value for our customer. In office environments, waste manifests itself in several forms. The two most common are distractions and lack of coordination.

Distractions come in the form of interruptions. People requiring assistance, problems that arise, email and spam, letters and correspondence. Each of these place demands on our time – and the result is time, our most precious resource, is wasted. Consistently, in time studies, 60-70% of our day is spent on activities that do not add value to the customer in the product development process. We’re too busy fighting fires.

Lack of coordination translates directly to rework. Priorities change, steps are missed, specifications change, the customer requirements shift. Typically meetings are twice as long as they need to be and have the wrong people at the table. Several people in a typical meeting room do not contribute to the discussion and distract others by texting away on their blackberries. The people who should be in the room are too busy to show up and do not send updates or designates. Meetings don’t start on time and consistently run overtime.

In fact, the first step in improving lead time for product development is waste elimination through time management and communication. Meeting rules, email rules, 5S for the office cubicle, standup coordination meetings and dedicated time for project work are a good place to start.


The workplace is a social experience. Many people love to tell stories and debate trivial or low priority points or tasks. Some people spend more time figuring out how not to do something than it would take to just get it done.

Communication in all forms should be clear, concise and to the point. Verification that the intended message was received and understood is essential. The social media site Twitter is a lesson in showing us how to be concise. Summarize your message in just a few lines, and link me to more information if I need it. Tell your story in the subject line of your email – then I don’t even have to open it! When we get good at shortening our message, we don’t have to use the kids acronym language to convey our message. We just become more thoughtful and concise – we think about the customer, the reader, and how they will interpret our message.

Developing lean communication skills should become a priority for your team – and like any skill it must be learned and developed through practice. Develop a safe feedback method to identify and correct team member undesired behaviour and provide tools for your team to measure progress as they improve.


In many organizations the structure of the design team itself leads to inefficiencies. Most designers have several bosses and many projects underway simultaneously. While most of us believe we are good multi-taskers, in reality few of us are. We struggle to move each project forward at the same time and all projects are delayed as a result. Traditional design houses are organized by function. This creates its own problems with islands of expertise – similar to departments in manufacturing. Ideally, the organization should be re-arranged by value stream (work flow through cells). In practice, a matrix organization typically develops and this creates its own unique challenges.

Utilize visual management tools focussed on project deliverables to align your team. Toyota’s Oobeya (the big project room) is a great model for this. While many companies do not have the resources to create this type of focussed room, the tools of this model can be readily applied. Use the lean moto “borrow with pride” or “steal shamelessly”. Where you see a good idea that will make you more effective – use it!

Oobeya starts with a model, a visual representation of what we are building to ground the team, focus on the customer and facilitate Quick Problem Solving (QPS). Out of the model flows a graphic representation of the project objectives with links to the corporate strategy or larger project plan. From the objectives, the expected outcomes are displayed and reported along with any urgent issues. From the expected outcomes, the team develops metrics to measure performance and report progress using a Red/Green stoplight approach. Quality, cost and project timing are all included so the team gets a full picture of project status. Next to the metrics, a project schedule defines deliverables by department. This is broken down on a decomposition board to schedule items requiring urgent attention more closely. Issues are clearly posted, whether they are potential or real and the resolution is displayed for communication of lessons learned. From the issues board, an escalated items area is dedicated to issues that require involvement from outside the team, typically decisions by management. The room reads like a storyboard and tells the story at a glance of how the project is progressing as well as how the team is identifying and dealing with issues.

Adopting just a few of these visual tools in your project area will help align your team and smooth the work flow.

What’s In It For Me (WIFM)

Surprisingly, for people not regularly exposed to design teams and engineering professionals, accountability can be a real problem. As professionals we think we know how to manage our projects effectively and do not react well to feedback on performance. Managers tend to step back and let the team work the black box magic that it takes to create the design. Delays and missed project milestones result.

So how do we instil accountability in an organization? Typically, it starts with clarification of roles and responsibilities. Everyone must understand what they are responsible for in terms of expertise, deliverables and timelines. The players themselves must determine how they are going to approach and deliver their tasks on time. The leader asks questions to assure themselves that the expertise and approach will deliver the desired result. Ease off the questioning and pressure as they “get it” and provide positive feedback as results are delivered. This coaching approach will instil accountability and earned trust in the organization.

Transforming the culture of an organization is a never ending and primary task for the leadership. Re-enforcing desired behaviour through constructive feedback is key. If you have read Leadership and Self Deception (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) you will identify with being “out of the box” when you do this to be effective.


Ideation is the process for forming ideas or images. Using lean visual management and story boards in the product development area to generate and capture ideas, solutions and improvements will yield surprising results. The creativity and collaboration possible with visual problem solving continues to amaze me. When used with creative teams, the results are impressive. Get out of the cubicle and get some group think happening.


So what is the approach to implementing lean product development? Where do I start?

Lean’s PDCA cycle is a great model to follow. Start with an assessment of where you are – how lean are you and what are the wastes. A day in the life of your team member is a great place to start.

Once the status of lean in your group has been established, identify the top wastes to be addressed and provide an introductory orientation/training session for the team. Starting with lean communications is appropriate in most design teams.

As you implement the corrective action ideas, pay close attention to what the team is saying. This will give you clues of where to dig for more wastes. Have the team validate and prioritize your list and you have their commitment to proceed with implementation.

Continue this Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle and you’ll soon be mapping processes, validating data and becoming lean.

Learning as you go is the best way. Lean is a journey, not a destination.


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