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Agility and Efficiency In Hardware and Software Development

Emerging Trends in Lean Product Development

By Ron Mascitelli, PMP
Technology Perspectives

Over the past twenty years, the acceptance of Lean Product Development as the pathway to dramatically faster, more efficient, and more effective new product development has transitioned from a small set of early adopters to the mainstream. This albeit belated ramp-up in interest and adoption has been driven by three critical trends: integration, globalization, and personalization. In this brief article, I'll describe how these factors have created a powerful pull for this final step in achieving a truly lean enterprise.

One of the recent advances in Lean Product Development (LPD) that has opened up new and broader markets is the gathering of disparate principles, tools and methods into an integrated, flexible framework. Perhaps even more important to many firms is the convergence of that framework with the Agile Software Development methodology. In recent years, these two approaches have benefitted from each other, with many shared concepts, and even a number of common methods and tools. The final step has been an understanding of how to link these two approaches within a single development project, so that an Agile environment can be used for software / firmware, while the Lean Product Development framework guides hardware development, integration and production readiness. The synergy between these two methodologies can yield dramatic reductions in time-to-market for hardware / software products, along with increased flexibility to adapt to changing market needs.

Those of you who have lived through a few decades of "improvement programs de jour" have likely realized that when new ideas are pushed into an organization, they rarely stick. This reality leads us to the next emerging trend - globalization of the product development process. This is really two trends that are running in parallel: the mandate for even the smallest of firms to have a global presence, and the increased use of global development teams by larger firms. The outsourcing of routine engineering tasks to lower-labor-cost countries has been around for a number of years. As demand for highly educated and skilled developers has increased, however, firms are increasingly tapping into global talent pools for scarce resources. Hotbeds for this trend include Eastern Europe, China, and Southeast Asia, where many firms are either establishing satellite R&D centers or partnering with established local firms. The bottom line is that firms of every size are increasingly developing global products with global teams.

So how does this create a pull for Lean Product Development? The highly refined visual communication tools used in LPD are perfectly suited to global team communication. Virtual versions of visual project boards, kanban boards, and visual project schedules have proven to be highly successful at linking the tasks of virtual teams, synchronizing their work, and enabling immediate issue identification and resolution. When coupled with frequent, highly structured stand-up meetings (scrums for you Agile folks), the LPD methodology represents perhaps the most effective means of achieving feedback and control of global projects. Additional collaborative LPD tools contribute to virtual team success as well, such as the use of project team "events". An event is a structured meeting in which team members from all functions gather for intensive, extended working sessions to hash out market requirements, identify and mitigate project risks, collaboratively plan their project, and employ rapid cycles of learning to gather the knowledge required for success. Although physical travel is often difficult and costly for global project teams, the event structure allows for more efficient physical meetings when they are practical, and can be used in a virtual form to ensure that all voices are heard as a global development project progresses.

The final emerging trend that has reduced the barriers to entry for Lean Product Development is personalization. Experience has taught many of us that prescriptive "recipes" for improvement are doomed to failure. In recent years, there has been increased recognition of the need for personalization of process improvements, and a greater confidence on the part of firms to step up and take ownership of their future state. Adapting of generic improvement concepts to the specific needs of the firm is critical to long-term success, and there is no business process where this is more obvious than new product development. Just some of the factors that compel the personalization of product development improvements include the markets being serviced, the type and complexity of products, the level of risk acceptance of the firm, the pace of competition, the regulatory environment, and so on. Whereas many firms have implemented a "phase / gate" type of governance process, these structures (at best) define the "what" of development, but not the "how". The flexible, modular framework for LPD is perfectly suited to customization and adaptation, and can serve as a lubricant for any existing process, or can stand alone as an end-to-end solution.

With a growing pull from global companies, increasingly confident and entrepreneurial organizational leadership and a methodology that can meet the evolving needs of new product development in a flexible and practical way, the future of Lean Product Development as an accepted way of doing business is virtually assured.