As global competition continues to intensify across industries, companies are actively pursuing strategies that will enable them to improve corporate financial performance. Over the past decade, Lean strategies have emerged as the predominant operational improvement strategy, and companies are aggressively pursuing Lean to achieve a competitive advantage. While Lean has been embraced as a key corporate strategy, the implementation of Lean principles has been primarily concentrated in production and supply chain operations.

     Today, Lean strategies are increasingly being extended to include processes and groups outside of operations; most notably product development. Eliminating risk in execution as new products are brought to market to fuel growth is an imperative to achieving success. However, very few companies have successfully implemented Lean in the product development process. Product development and engineering organizations have for the most part only received training in Lean concepts and tools without clear applicability.

Lean in Product Development

     The obstacles to implementing Lean in product development often stem from a lack of understanding of the different approaches: Lean Engineering, Lean Design, and Lean Development. Fundamentally there are three different approaches:

     • Lean Engineering – Applying Lean principles to engineering; flow, pull, standardized work, takt time, and other Lean principles through common Lean techniques and tools used in operations.

     • Lean Design – Adopting fundamentally different engineering methodologies, such as set-based design, as identified in the book Product Development for the Lean Enterprise by Michael Kennedy. 

     • Lean Development – Accounting for the necessary core considerations that the Lean manufacturing environment and Lean supply chain require.

     It is important to note that there is no progression between the three approaches: Lean Engineering, Lean Design, and Lean Development. None of the approaches is a prerequisite for the others. A company can implement one or more of the approaches in any order. However, no matter how a company decides to implement Lean in the product development organization, the overall product development process must comprehend the essential elements of the Lean manufacturing environment and the Lean supply chain.

     In effect, both Lean Engineering and Lean Design will need to incorporate the third approach, Lean Development. In fact, if a company is applying Lean principles in manufacturing and the supply chain, the Lean Development approach is a natural extension back into the product development process and can be applied independent of the other two approaches.

     The Lean Development approach effectively constitutes product development for Lean manufacturing. The basic premise is to incorporate Lean preproduction preparation activities upstream in the product development process as deliverables or triggers for activities. By integrating Lean preparation and planning activities within the appropriate product development phases, a company is able to ensure readiness at product launch in the Lean manufacturing and supply chain environments, as well as eliminate wastes such as waiting-time waste or overprocessing waste.

     Examples of the Lean Development core considerations include:

     • What are the design requirements essential to Customer Value?

     • Will a new product slot into an existing Lean Product Family or will it constitute an entirely new Lean Product Family?

     • What mistake proofing (Poka Yoke) design elements can be included?

     • Will all or part of an existing Value Stream be leveraged by a new product or will a new Value Stream be defined?

     • Will materials, components, parts, and assemblies be sourced from ‘preferred’ suppliers qualified for pull-based Kanban fulfillment?

     • Will the new product target an existing Mixed Model line or work cells?

     • Will new tooling or equipment include consideration for ‘quick change over’ SMED capabilities in the specification, design, and selection?

     These are some of the many Lean Development core considerations a company should be performing during product development for each new product. Other related activities can include new product Value Analysis, Value Engineering, Design for Six Sigma (DFSS), Design for Manufacturability/Design for Assembly (DFM/DFA), Risk Analysis, and numerous other Lean-related engineering preproduction activities. The right combination of core considerations depends on the company’s specific competitive practices and the nature of the company’s Lean environment and supply chain.

Technology’s Supporting Role

     Product development and engineering in today’s world are primarily knowledge worker processes heavily reliant on information technology. Globally distributed teams utilize automation software in each role and for every aspect of the process. It is increasingly difficult to perform new product development without the many different software technologies used for design, simulation, and collaboration.

     One of the fundamental issues with software technology when implementing Lean in product development is that individual tools such as CAD software and simulation tools optimize individual operations without regard to the overall process of product development. The role of point applications in product development is analogous to that of machine tool automation in manufacturing. Speeding up a select handful of operations can actually be counter productive to overall process efficiency resulting in cycle time increases as opposed to improvement due to the wastes created in other functions such as quality and operations.

     It is impossible to perform new product development in today’s globally distributed environment without the many different point applications used for design, simulation, and design collaboration, however, an overemphasis on automating only design without equal or greater focus on the overall process of product development undermines a Lean initiative and can adversely effect corporate time-to-market and financial objectives.

     To effectively implement Lean in product development with any of the three previously identified approaches (Lean Engineering, Lean Design, or Lean Development) a company must focus on the overall process to achieve meaningful results. Point applications and tools are unable to support the necessary process aspects required due to limited scope and an inability to manage complex business processes.

     Enterprise Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software that combines business processes like phase-based new product program management as well as document, file, and data control plays an essential role in enabling Lean in product development.

     Key elements in an enterprise PLM solution that supports Lean include:

     • Program Management Process Structure – Ability to define product development phases, milestones, and deliverables in formats that accommodate the many complexities of the business. Template driven processes that become the working version of a new product program are important to both standardization and productivity.

     • Visual Management Dashboards – Ability to see the progress and status of product programs as they move through product development. Dashboards with real-time roll-ups of actual project activities are important in eliminating waste due