Managers often say they want to improve their product development capability based on so-called “lean” principles and practices so they can innovate while reducing costs and improving quality. In studying manufacturing over the past two decades, the authors have found that operational excellence is not achieved by simply applying lean practices to every process. More than anything, they say, it requires cultivating an aptitude and an expectation for continuous improvement within every employee.
What’s important in product development, the authors say, isn’t just following the right steps -- it’s how the work is done. Until organizations fundamentally view people as central and leaders act accordingly, the risk of development process improvement efforts not actually improving anything is frighteningly high. In practice, the authors contend, most companies invest very little in people development in comparison to other investments they make.
The underlying concepts of lean product development have been around since the 1980s, the authors note, when an MIT study found that Japanese automotive companies followed practices that were profoundly different from those of other auto manufacturers.
In new product development, lean is about advancing the skills of individuals through technical training and methods of collaboration so that each developer is able to design, develop, and deliver better products and services. Companies can promote individual mastery, in the authors’ view, by asking three questions: (1) What do we need to learn about our customers, products, and production processes to design better products? (2) How do we learn this? (3) And what kinds of organizational structures and routines will best support learning?
The authors outline several steps companies should take to advance the development of their people. These include making technical mastery an expectation and building it into the reward system and how people work every day, and developing standards and using them. The starting point for standards can be the knowledge that already resides within the organization; standards can be systematically updated based on the learning gained on each development project. In addition, companies should hold regular technical design reviews with the explicit aim of developing their people, and they should take a critical look at the formal development process. Finally, executives should ask their leadership teams to focus less on decision making and assigning work, and more on instructing and improving.