Wherefore art thou “Lean Product Development”?

shakespeare-bigAs “agile” software development practices spread into all aspects of standard product development, and latching onto the “lean” label, it is often a valuable exercise to try and get a better understanding of where something comes from, how it has evolved and what’s different today.

While what is generally understood today as “Lean Manufacturing” can be linearly sourced to post WWII Japan, Toyota, Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo et al, components of lean existed prior to this from numerous manufacturing revolutionaries such as Fred Taylor, Henry Ford and many others.  Even so, the “Toyota Production Method” is the dominant force in Lean Manufacturing.  Product development and engineering, by contrast, doesn’t yet seem to have settled on a stable definition of its methods.

When it comes to using lean/agile concepts in managing engineering projects and product development, there is, in fact, a defined lineage.  While it is impossible to cover every possible contribution and attribution to the “Lean PD” body of knowledge, here we’ll attempt to at least uncover the major players responsible and the current state of its affairs.

At the beginning of the Lean Product Development movement sometime in the mid- to late- 1990s, most proponents logically began with trying to replicate the Toyota model, attempting to find analogues between manufacturing and engineering.  However, many soon realized that the inherent differences between the two rejected wholesale mimicry, which opened the door for an evolution of the practices to include related management techniques, such as Six Sigma, DFM/A, Theory of Constraints, Agile Software methods and other bodies of thought.  Complicating matters further was the friction from recently entrenched phase gate systems, splitting managements already short attention span.

In the current iteration, what seems to be gaining the most traction is Lean/Agile methods as characterized by someone like Mary Poppendieck, augmented with  sound economic-leaning lean product development principles, as characterized by the work of Don Reinertsen and the late Preston SmithTheory of Constraints, or, more specifically, Critical-Chain Project Management, has it’s place as well in the Lean PD toolbox.  As evidence, there are also new software products being released to help NPD teams embed these principles in their workflow practices.

Two key pieces of Lean Product Development are the time/speed and economic dimensions that guide decision making.  Concepts such as “cost of delay” which assign dollar values to schedule setbacks provide managers with a more clear cut perspective on how to employ scarce resources without harming the bottom line.   Similarly, using critical chain methods, many projects avoid multitasking that elongates task duration and focusing workflow to be more effective at meeting deadlines.

Lastly, tools that provide visual representations of project management, “Haijunka boxes” for engineering so to speak, can greatly speed up communication among team members and even automate task management.  We predict more software tools and mobile apps to more greatly enable this in the near future.

It has taken several years, but “Lean Product Development” seems like it is settling down to a more finite set of principles that may gain the wide acceptance of it’s manufacturing sibling.  As software invades more and more products and companies are forced to adopt more and more software development capabilities, this melding of the Agile software and traditional Lean PD world has produced a hybrid that is gaining notice and popularity, and may finally push Lean Product Development to more of the forefront.

Want to learn more about Agile/Lean PD in Practice?

Attend our upcoming webinar:
Lean and Agile Methods and Tools for Product Development:
How Arthrex Corporation Cut Development Time by 50%

Tuesday, June 24, 2014 / 1:00-2:00pm ET