There’s a scene in Back to the Future 2 where Doc and Marty McFly are trying to figure out how they have come back to a completely different 1985 than they remember. Doc has a simple timeline up on a chalkboard, trying to outline to Marty how there has somehow been an alternate future created due to Biff getting a hold of a history of sports outcomes, taking the DeLorean back to 1955 and giving it to a young Biff, which is why Doc and Marty can’t travel back to the future from this reality to stop Biff from stealing the time machine because they are in an alternate reality and it won’t happen there…
Ok, you’re right, we’re already getting off-track. The point is, Doc’s very simple timeline reminds me of how a mature company who gets introduced to lean product development might tend to think: How can we go back in time and design our products so that all these years they would have cost us less money, taken less work and resources to produce and distribute and innovate against, and provided more value to our customers and our consumers? Wouldn’t that be nice?
Applying lean concepts in a manufacturing environment, at least to me, seems to be much more straightforward and logical to understand. The world is more transactional, has shorter cycle times, and tends to already have a plethora of process measurements to pull data and analyze from. And there are numerous success stories to help sell the thinking and tools (and sometimes just the tools).
When we move to apply lean in the product development world, it always feels like we are starting from scratch. How good are we at delivering on innovation? How well do we understand our consumers needs and wants? How would we even measure the health of our product development process? Knowledge-based development? Don’t we already do that?
There is a very good reason why it is important to get lean in the world of product development. I’ll paraphrase from Ron Mascitelli – No matter how lean you make your factories, if you fill them with fat products, you’ll never realize the full potential of how profitable your product line can be and how much value you can deliver to your customers. You will always be limited by the waste that is built into the product design very early on in the development process.
So now to the sighting of lean product development. I don’t even know that this company is lean, knows what lean or lean product development is. They could simply be very creative! But what I observed seems to be a great illustrative example of end to end waste reduction through product design. And I wish I took more pictures to share with you…
We recently finished the inside of our garage, and of course we said, let’s get some nice new cabinets to go with those freshly painted walls! My wife found a great online deal on a set of NewAge metal cabinets, so we ordered them. Within a short period of time they delivered a pallet to our garage with two large boxes on it. Just one pallet, for something that would measure several feet long and tall. As I looked at the box, I only wondered how much work I would have to do in order to assemble all the different cabinets. I imagined something similar to a typical piece of Sauder furniture – all the flat side, back, bottom and top pieces nicely tucked into to the boxes with minimal space, but plenty of assembly hardware included.
One morning I decided to open everything up and calculate how many hours I would need to commit to getting these up on the wall. I opened the first large box only to find one giant single cabinet inside. I was concerned – were there several other pallets on their way with other cabinets? I opened up the doors on the large cabinet and found that inside were several other of the smaller cabinets. They fit perfectly inside with minimal packing materials. I moved on to box number 2 and found the same thing – one large cabinet with the other small cabinets inside. I was very impressed (and happy) – this entire set of cabinets all compressed into one small area on a pallet, and I wasn’t even going to have to assemble them!
I realized with conventional thinking, your cabinet design paradigm might be that all the cabinets had to be the same depth so they were flush with each other and looked nice. So all you would be able to do is box them individually, or break them down into multiple pieces that the consumer would then need to assemble. If a conventional product development process designed these cabinets, then it may have taken up several pallet spaces on a delivery truck, multiple SKUs in a warehouse to keep track of, and extra inventory of each of those SKUs. And if a company wanted to take cost out of the product or process, there is a good chance they would turn to thinning out the materials, squeezing the supplier for alternate lower-cost materials, do their best to eliminate waste in the manufacturing process, use cheaper fasteners, and so on.
This is where the wish for the alternate timeline comes in. What if at some point in the past they had designed a cabinet that consumers wanted but didn’t need to ship in separate boxes or be assembled by consumers? What if they were able to design something that could be sold as a package and only took one SKU in the warehouse, and only one pallet space on the truck? Surely this is a more desirable reality than the conventional one.
It seems to me that a designer or design team somewhere along the way asked the question of whether keeping the faces of the cabinets flush with each other was a true consumer need. And if not, what if we reduced the depth on the smaller cabinets so they could all fit inside the two larger cabinets? And put it all on a single pallet? The result in this case was a very happy consumer and impressed lean thinker. I can only assume it also resulted in a happy company and a profitable product.
So how would a company ensure that they didn’t just get “lucky” with one great design idea? How can they constantly work towards the best product design possible that creates the most value for the company and the consumers? The answer lies in the fundamentals of lean product development, from set-based concurrent engineering to evaluating risks to 3P and beyond.
How do you begin this transformation? Decide that’s the direction you need to go, get educated, get a capable teacher, and try! Read a book: A Ron Mascitelli or an Allen Ward book are excellent and complementary to each other. Based on my experience, it’s likely to be a long transformation, so that makes today a better day to start than tomorrow.