Applying Lean to Product Development

DN Staff

April 15, 2011

6 Min Read
Applying Lean to Product Development

While concepts likekanban, flow and value stream mapping are well understood in the manufacturingworld, the language of lean has been tougher to translate to engineeringpractices, despite heightened interest in new ways to reduce costs and wringinefficiencies out of product development cycles.

Lean manufacturing, whichborrows principles and tools from Toyota Motor Corp.'s widely heralded ToyotaProduction System, was popularized over the last couple of decades as a provenway to boost quality, increase flow, and eliminate waste across manufacturingand operations. Based on several decades of well-documented success stories,companies have been looking to deploy the same lean methodologies toengineering and product developmentas a way to create a greater numberof innovative products faster, with less waste and at greatly reduced costs.

Awareness of lean practices has been amplified thanks to mountingpressure on companies to get products tomarket faster, often using fewer engineering resources and faced withtighter R&D budgets.

Katherine Radeka, president of Whittier Consulting Group, whichspecializes in the area of lean product development, says while there'scertainly been an uptick in interest, theconcepts have been slower to catch on in product development mostlybecause waste is much harder to visualize in the information-oriented andincreasingly virtual world of product design. "When you go on to amanufacturing floor, you can see waste (in the form of) excess inventory ordefects, you can see the rework (and scrap) or you can see (the problem with)transportation issues," Radeka explains. "Thechallenge in product development is that you don't have physical objectsfloating around - it's about the flow of knowledge and information. Therefore, waste is harder to see."

It might be harder to identify, but not wholly impossible,especially if looked at through a different lens. Experts like Radeka contendthat part of what's stymied the adoption of lean principles in productdevelopment is the attempt to copy the tools and practices exactly as they areapplied in manufacturing.

Because the fundamental principal around lean manufacturing is toremove waste in past processes used to create a physical

part, the practicebecomes very task-oriented and standardized - an exercise that doesn't lenditself to the very nature of product development. "As long as lean productdevelopment is perceived as a series of point-based tasks like leanmanufacturing, you don't get to the fundamental element of engineering, whichis learning and resolving the knowledge gaps so you can see all the trade-offsand made good engineering decisions to best serve the customer," says MichaelKennedy, author of "Product Development for the Lean Enterprise," and CEO of Targeted Convergence.

Rather than forcing engineersto embrace a standardized development model, which many view as an impedimentto fostering creativity and innovation, focus instead on where the iterativeprocess encourages unnecessary waste and non-productivity. "One of thefundamental problems companies have is this practice of continual loopbacks,where they think they made the right decision, but it was the wrong decisionand they end up continually in firefighting mode, fixing problems on the backend," Kennedy explains. Instead of rushing a design into CAD and thenretrenching to address problems, Kennedy contends engineering groups need tofoster best practices and leverage tools that will encourage time spent upfrontto fully understand the problem, identify the knowledge necessary forevaluating design choices and work through the trade-offs. ?"If you look at the continual state of loopbacksand lost knowledge in companies, something like 70 percent of engineeringtalent is used to solve problems that should have been solved early on," Kennedy says.

Tools and Best Practices
There are a variety oftools and best practices to help engineering organizations promote the earlylearning and knowledge sharing that goes hand-in-hand with lean concepts. Onesuch method is set-based engineering, a practice where engineers put a lot ofintensity in the front end of the development process to understand thetrade-offs on a possible set of solutions before committing to a single design.Conducting simulation early on in the development process is another way togather knowledge and explore design options as part of a lean approach. Bothapproaches may appear counter-intuitive at first since they demand extra timeand resources spent upfront.

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"The thinking is go fast and be lean, but it turns out if wespend 10 to 15 percent more time doing experimentation to close the knowledgegaps so we understand what we don't know, detailed designs are more robust andmore likely to withstand the process of transferring to manufacturing," Radekasays.

CAD and PLM platforms can playa key role in helping development organizations inject lean principles intotheir practices. Most PLM suites offer core data management, workflow, visualplanning, collaboration, business process and project management capabilitiesthat are essential to promoting the lean vision. For their part, CAD platformshave a variety of visualization, collaboration, workflow and built-in simulationcapabilities that can be used to discourage waste, both in the actual designsand in development hand-offs, not to mention fostering reuse and promotingset-based engineering practices among dispersed development teams.

"How information flows inproduct development is critical to supporting lean, and PLM tools are all aboutmaking information more accessible," says John Wylie, vice president of productmanagement at PTC.

BoothroydDewhurst has a slightly different take on lean product development - somethingit calls product simplification. Instead of focusing on leaning aspects of thedevelopment process, Boothroyd Dewhurst targets its Design for Manufacture andAssembly methodology as a cost-reduction tool for creating lean product designsright from the start. "Leaning the process is good, but it's just proofreadingversus editing and you're just going to catch and fix mistakes," says JohnGilligan, president of Boothroyd Dewhurst. "With leaning the product, you'recreating the potential for a better product - one that has more features perdollar."

Hypertherm, which manufactures plasma cutting technology, is an avid believer thatproduct simplification is a direct route to leaner product development. Thecompany is a long-time practitioner of lean manufacturing and realized early onthat those same principles wouldn't directly translate to optimizing productdevelopment, according to Mike Shipulski, Hypertherm's engineering director.Using the DFMA methodology and software, Hypertherm engineers now regularlyfactor cost targets and assembly strategies into their initial designexploration and continuously evaluate designs from a manufacturing and assemblystandpoint. "We're turning lean on its head to focus on the product," Shipulskisays. "Not only does design simplification lean the factory, it simplifies theproduct development process because you're designing fewer things. As a result,there are fewer things to document and fewer hand-offs."

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