Tips on guiding product development
Parable of the worm
Ted Gautschi Consultant, Wellesley
This simple real-life situation illustrates common
pitfalls facing many product development firms, such
as the fictitious Hi-Tech. See if you recognize any
At Hi-Tech, the worm is a relatively junior (but highly
educated) individual contributor and like most worms,
he gets input from many sources, which include his education,
training, and previous professional experience; scientific/-technical
communities; marketing sources; customers; and management.
The invention. Drawing on his accumulated
knowledge, the worm conceives of an invention: an improved
heterodyne plasma gizmo that will elevate the equipment
performance from the current average of 1 rock to about
10 rocks. Now he tries to put this 10-rock capability
into the hands of customers.
From the joy of invention, he discovers the travails
of product development. As Hi-Tech has no accepted product
development process, the result is a chaotic process.
Our hero draws up a Gantt chart and prepares a work
breakdown structure that shows how, with help from other
departments, all necessary tasks could be accomplished
in an 18-month schedule by a team of three engineers,
two designers, and 1.5 technicians. Several schedule
changes were suggested and our worm made the changes.
The Dark Ages. Nothing positive happens.
Functional managers explain that rocks are their number
10 priority; no resources can be allocated. Individuals
explain that they are too overloaded to help. Discouraged,
the worm updates his resume.
Months later, the worm quaffs a few beers with a field
service engineer who complains about a customer who
insists that their equipment live up to its 10-rock
specification. The worm describes his idea and how it
didn't get very far.
The Sale. A couple of months later,
Hi-Tech's factory accepts an order for an implanter
from XYZ corporation, for whom the worm's friend now
worked. Delivery is scheduled in four month's time.
One month into this period, engineering notices that
the specifications call for a heterodyne plasma rock
system. After some excitement, someone finds a copy
of the plan, and our hero explains at a priorities meeting
why the project is late. Engineering digs out the proof-of-concept
prototype sketches and sends rushed drawings out for
procurement. Our hero, the center of attention, does
his best to explain the principle of heterodyne plasmas.
Hardware arrives one week before shipment; the worm
works 100 hours in the final week to get the system
up and running.
The process engineer at XYZ works intensely on process
and equipment interactions, and the first installation
of the heterodyne plasma rock system is very successful
in improving yield. Six months after the first shipment,
the parts drawings are complete, but manufacturing does
not have any assembly drawings. Training has been unable
to procure a system for their machine and include it
in training classes. Field service continues to look
to engineering (the worm) to address all field issues.
Of these confusions, steel is substituted for the unobtainium
at some sites, and customers scrap multiple lots because
of iron contamination. Worm's general manager gets multiple
irate phone calls.
†See the next Management Forum to make
product development less chaotic.
This is a modified version of a presentation by Frank
Sinclair, director of engineering at Eaton Corp.
Ask the Manager
Q: According to the Sinclair scenario, the
heterodyne plasma rock system becomes a valued product.
Where did they go wrong?
A: Late delivery, higher product cost,
insufficient training, inadequate documentation, and
key people working too many stressful hours created
the chaotic conditions.
Q: As an engineer, what must I possess besides
a good technical education to advance my career into
A: According to an MIT Management
of Technology Programs brochure, key managers need more
than in-depth scientific or engineering education and
on-the-job experience to provide strategic technological
leadership. They must also possess substantial managerial
knowledge for leadership within their organizations
in planning and controlling projects, inspiring and
developing professional technical employees, and integrating
the marketing, engineering, and production functions.
Q: You recommend that teams avoid groupthink.
What is it, exactly?
A: Some think "groupthink"
is the process for achieving consensus. This is not
true. When groupthink is in operation, the group limits
its discussion of alternatives to a minimum. Members
also don't fully examine alternatives and don't obtain
outside expert opinion. Instead, the group is most interested
in facts that support its chosen position and tends
to ignore facts which question the chosen position.
As a rule, the group avoids considering any contingency
plans. The group involved seems to develop group norms
that bolster morale at the expense of critical thinking.
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