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Cut out design ‘waste’ and let creativity flourish

28 June 2010

We’ve all heard about lean manufacturing, but Gregor Aikman believes we should step back a stage or two and consider ‘lean product development’. Identify and eliminate wasteful practices at the design stage, he says, and your design team will achieve the results that ultimately bring success to your organisation

For most organisations product development can rarely be thought of as lean. Traditionally the path to the launch of that shiny new idea is fraught with wasted time, money and resources. This isn’t ideal in buoyant times but when times are hard and competition is fierce, waste can be the difference between success and survival.

Immersing yourself in a lean approach will bring 10 to 50% increase in gross margins; more than 30% increase in product design capacity; a 20 to 60% reduction in design cycle time, and a dramatic improvement in schedule predictability.

The philosophy of continuous improvement, waste elimination, and a passion for innovation, will ensure that we can continue to thrive and keep our manufacturing base in the UK. Being involved in the development and delivery of internally manufactured products as well as projects for external clients has given the company I co-founded – Meso Design - a broad insight into the pitfalls that are all too easy to slip into.

Avoiding these pitfalls requires a shift in thinking first introduced by Toyota to great effect with its world leading lean manufacture philosophy. The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that ‘common sense is genius dressed in its working clothes’. In this article I hope to demonstrate how companies can make a dramatic difference through the application of some practical common sense tools.

Define the rules
Firstly, we should ask ourselves why we should pay for product and process waste? Typically more than 80% of all activities in a product design cycle are non-value added; that is, activities that the customer will not actually pay for. In fact non-value added work may represent your biggest product design cost. As a design team member, does a day filled with inefficient communication, pointless meetings, vague tasks, poor handoffs, fire fighting and error fixing sound familiar?

Efficiency can be greatly increased by creating a lean culture within your design team. Start by defining the ‘rules’ by which your design team will work. There’s a sample list in the panel below.
By getting your team on board and then applying some of the lean design tools that are appropriate to the project you will begin to see measureable improvements in productivity per team member, return on R&D, capacity to handle new projects, time-to-market and profit margins on new products. But first, we must take a look at the makeup of the design team.

You should, in general, try to keep it as multidisciplinary and integrated as possible. Isolated functional departments often result in an ‘over the wall’ culture where poor specifications, deliverables and handovers lead to unnecessary waste. The ultimate goal is to move towards a continuous value stream of tasks from concept all the way through to manufacture.  The only way this can happen is to have effective, value added communication.

Visibility is the key. Each team member should be aware of the project and deliverable status at a glance. A good place to start is with a large format wall chart outlining timescales, deliverables, task allocation and status. If it is regularly updated, then it will provide the project with a continuous surge of urgency. If all tasks are green and on target then there’s no need for a status review. ‘Stand up’ meetings between team members should eliminate the need for time consuming formal meetings where people rarely stick to the agenda.

Even obvious tips such as information that requires more than two emails back and forth should be dealt with over the phone can make a significant impact on wasted time. Formal review meetings should only take place at the end of each major design phase where the agenda should stick to an overview of the product in relation to the mutually agreed and predefined deliverables between you and the customer. Only once sign off has been agreed should the project move forward to negate the possibility of wasted work in an unwanted area.

Specifications and deliverables
This leads on to another critical concept in lean product development: defining the specifications and deliverables. Whether your customer is the public, another business or another department within your organisation, it is imperative that the deliverable matches expectations. If the product falls short you will have disappointed customers and if it has unwanted extra features then profit margins are compromised.

If possible, the customer should collaborate in the design specification, ensuring that value is being pulled by the client and that unwanted deliverables are not pushed onto them. If this is not possible then it is important that designers use ‘virtual user stories’ to personify the customer and help them empathise with their requirements.

The Lean QFD is a useful tool in which to involve clients so that all parties’ expectations are aligned. It consists of a weighted matrix between the three key benefits of the project, implications of design choices and alternative design options. The goal is to clarify the implications of design decisions in the mind of the designer and customer. Take the example of an affordable sports car. A carbon fibre car body may result in the best performance and fuel economy but it will greatly increase cost; so, perhaps, aluminum will have to be used as a compromise. Information from this matrix can then be used as a basis to put together a more informed list of functional requirements for the product leading to less waste due to redesign.

There are many other in-depth tools that can be used but lean product development doesn’t mean you have to implement every technique from the outset; after all, the process is based upon a philosophy of continuous improvement. Once you begin to see results then further tools can be used to squeeze out that little bit of extra value.

Just remember if you hear yourself coming out with phrases like: ‘just squeeze in this one last feature’, or ‘if I prioritise your work it will just give you an excuse not to do it all’ or ‘don’t worry about that now, we can fix it in the factory’, then its definitely time for a lean refresher! Introducing lean manufacturing techniques into the product design process need not mean sacrificing creativity or innovation.

Gregor Aikman is projects director at Meso Design

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