In a perfect world, product development goes smoothly and a company can release a product to market on time and with all expectations met. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Our imperfection is why a focus on process improvement to make serious, gradual attempts to enhance our work product is worth pursuing.
“Process improvements (or continuous improvements) are about asking, ‘How can we do this better? What incremental steps can we take?’ ” said Shaher Ahmad, founder of 4S Med-Device Consulting. “It should involve continuous learning and accountability.”
Successful process improvements can result in fewer headaches and increased profits. Ahmad shares some other considerations and best practices for companies looking to improve their product development outcomes.
Establish a Baseline and Goal
Process improvement starts with taking note of your baseline and establishing your goals. For example, a manufacturer may be looking to improve its Takt time. Perhaps, it currently takes two hours to assemble a product, but the goal is to do it in an hour and a half. Or, it may take 18 months to get a product to market, but the goal is to do it in 16 months. The baseline could also be financial. Maybe it costs $100 to make a product, and you want to try to make it for $75.
“Establishing your baseline and then clearly communicating the goals along with priorities early on is critical for improvement,” Ahmad said. “This will also help determine how to distribute resources with the goal in mind.”
Look Back to Find Trends
To move forward and improve, Ahmad notes it’s necessary to know where you’ve been.
“To show improvements with something that’s going to happen in the future, you have to compare it to what you have done in the past,” he said. “It’s helpful to track and look at your history as you look towards the future.”
Ahmad suggests examining past projects phase-by-phase to see what goals you may have met or missed. For example, maybe you didn’t do enough research in the feasibility phase or adequate testing in the design phase. As you find trends, you will see what you should challenge and where you can improve and then start to make adjustments as you move forward.
In addition to reflecting on internal processes, consider external factors like market trends, changing regulations, or your competition’s launches that may have prevented you from reaching your goals. It’s also essential to gain feedback from the end-user to see where you may have failed to meet their expectations and how you can do better next time.
“Look back and ask, ‘What happened; what went wrong; why did we not meet our goals?’ ” Ahmad said. “Usually, the answer is multifaceted. Sometimes, you may even have to go all the way back to the product definition and better understand what the need was, but it’s critical to do what’s necessary to establish a link between what you’ve done in the past and how you can succeed in the future.”
Make Proactive Improvements
While Ahmad says that a great deal of learning can occur in post-mortem discussions, it’s important to be proactive about making improvements in real time as you recognize those opportunities.
“We need to learn from our mistakes and adjust quickly. You can also push for some improvement early on in the design cycle while you still work towards meeting quality and reliability goals,” he said.
For example, if your goal is to reduce your out-of-box failure rate from 2% to 1%, design with that in mind and set up your reliability testing towards that number — that is a form of improvement.
“It takes more planning, testing and analysis up front, but there are things you can be proactive about and do throughout your product development cycle.”
Look at the Process Itself
Ahmad reminds companies to consider improvements to the actual product development process.
“I’ve seen companies that require hundreds of forms and deliverables to get a product out,” he said. “Why? Some require 20 signatures on a document. Can we get away with three? Why issue ‘X’ amount of engineering change notices and rush them through the system to save time only to redo half of them because the proper level of cross-functional review did not occur? Your paperwork or standard operating procedures drive your product development process and, if it’s slowing you down, there’s an opportunity for a process improvement there.”
While Ahmad suggests minimizing deliverables, he warns not to do so to a point at which product quality is jeopardized or standards or regulations are overlooked.
Track Your Activities
Process improvement requires a clear pathway, great transparency and visibility. Ahmad says working collectively as a team to track how you’re moving from one stage of development to another. A big part of that is tracking defects and how they should be communicated.
“Use that as a communication and accountability tool in addition to an ongoing continuous improvement tool,” Ahmad said. Those can be part of setting short- and long-term goals related to the project and tracking your progress.
“For example, say you have 100 defects and 100 days until your deadline. You need to tackle one defect a day. If you’re spending three days on one defect, someone has to raise the flag and say, ‘We’re going to miss our goal,’ ” Ahmad said. “You also have to keep track of additional defects, which will happen. From a process standpoint, having such a tool is a good practice to help with continuous improvement.”
These documents can also be useful in future development, allowing teams to look back at past problems, how they were dealt with, and what can be done differently. It is a form of a baseline that you can compare to and beat during the next project.
Don’t be Afraid to Ask Why and Experiment
Companies strive to take a lean approach to product development, which is often understood as getting things done in the shortest time with the least resources, taking a conservative approach to risk. That sometimes leads to being conservative with the process and keeping it as steady as possible. A change to the process of product development can be viewed as disruption, but it should not. Ahmad says even process development continuous improvement should allow room for experimentation and innovation.
“You have to do these things,” he said. “Yes, there’s an element of the unknown, but you have to fail, and fail often, to be successful. That’s the challenge when it comes to continuous improvement and product development.”
As a leader, “You have to be willing to put your neck on the line every once in a while to challenge the status quo and ask, ‘Why are we doing this this way?’” Ahmad said. “That’s your job as a leader, being comfortable challenging the staff. If you’re not always asking, ‘What can we do differently?’ you’re never improving.”