Why you fail at Lean Product Development


One of my favorite fortune cookie fortunes goes like this: “Many shall receive advice, but only the wise will profit by it.”   This is relevant to all corporate improvement initiatives and especially anything labeled “Lean.”

The biggest mistake that most make when implementing any big system changes, be it lean product development, six sigma or open innovation, is not sufficiently planning for the cultural impact.  These changes can be both physical and psychological.  The reason they are often under-considered is a simple one — it’s too hard to deal with and filled with risks.  But as we’ve experienced many times, it pays to sweat the soft stuff.

Many more companies are successful with lean manufacturing than they are with lean product development.  A lot of this happens for the same reasons, mostly having to do with staff buy-in.  If you have not convinced and sold the proposed procedural changes to those who must experience them, you will not go far.  Manufacturing has it a bit easier as shop floor personnel are more used to and inclined to cooperate if given precise direction whereas engineering, R&D, marketing, etc., are staffed by those trained to challenge ideas and scrutinize intellectual pursuits.

When trying to implement Lean Product Development, in general, people will focus on the technical issues first, such as how to reorganize work, and if trying to stick to a Toyota-type approach, how to adapt and implement shop floor tools such as a Haejunka box.  But tools are really the lowest hanging fruit of such pursuits.  If you have not changed your culture to be one where the tools are accepted and uniformly followed, then you are basically doomed.  And there are often A LOT of new tools to introduce.  It’s not enough to change how you do things, you have to also change how things are done, otherwise, after the honeymoon, things will quickly revert to the old methods.

A recent article from Fortune describes Midwest software company, Menlo, as a role model for those who want to get their lean system right.  Of course, the software industry has a bit of an unfair advantage with a longer standing relationship with lean techniques from the “Agile” development movement that is now decades old.  Many used to argue that software was too unique an environment to compare to other industries, but over the years a lot of minds have changed.

Menlo breaks a lot of molds, starting with their workspace.  Inspired by the Edison namesake of their company, their development office resembles a factory and is designed to encourage collaboration, with the ability to quickly reconfigure desks, tables and workstations (power outlets are suspended from the ceilings).  The room is often abuzz and noisy with people working on projects, which is the antithesis of most software companies that believe this type of engineering benefits from quiet.

Menlo’s lean philosophy shows much more commitment than most.  Everyone works in pairs, with two developers even sharing a single computer workstation.  They strive for deep customer understanding of how their products are used, modeled after how Toyota engineers spend time working in auto dealerships and living with minivan-driving soccer mom’s for a few months.  They have truly engineered a lean culture, walking the walk like few do.

But what are you to do?  It’s a lot easier to build a lean product development environment when you start from scratch, such as Menlo did.  It’s a completely different challenge to convert a longstanding engineering and R&D department.  In many instances, a flurry of big changes will occur to try and cement the fact that this is serious, but when folks don’t fully buy-in, they will nitpick every small failure and “game” the new system until just reverting to the old methods.

But there is hope.

Instead of shocking the system with widespread changes, it may be much more effective to introduce focused changes on the most leverage-able areas of your process.  By taking small bites, such as examining how to reconfigure workflow, batch size and job queues, it is possible to free up resources and pipeline projects to completion.  Once you have demonstrated concrete gains to your staff, they will likely be more open to further improvements and you can get closer to achieving your desired “design factory.”

Before you start ripping out walls and painting the floor, we highly recommend you read the groundbreaking book by Don Reinertsen, Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development, which explores how lean concepts best fit inside engineering groups and will help you focus on the critical areas that will yield the quickest and most significant gains.

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