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The Key To Successful Offshore Engineering Collaboration

To get the most out of offshore design resources, you must teach your organization how to successfully communicate and collaborate.

Many engineering and product development businesses are utilizing offshore design centers to economically increase engineering manpower, but the collaboration efforts are often less productive than envisioned. To get the most out of offshore design resources, you must teach your organization how to successfully communicate and collaborate.

When talking with people about improving processes or business performance, my favorite question to ask is, “What are your greatest pains in product development right now?” It is a great way to bypass all of the speculation about what works or doesn’t work and get right to where the wastes or roadblocks to success reside.

One very popular answer these days, particularly when I’m talking with someone on the engineering staff, is, “I hate working with my [offshore] design center. It takes five times as long to get anything done, and it’s never as good as what we can do here. I always need to clean it up or fix it. My company makes me use [the offshore design group] though, in spite of the poor results.” Sound familiar to anyone?

A great many large and international corporate businesses have invested in offshore design and engineering resources in regions where the salaries and overhead for skilled engineers are significantly lower than in the United States or Western Europe. These design centers are often in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, or Eastern Asia.

Face it; it was inevitable. And though the patriot to U.S. engineering and industry in me wants to scream for us to stand up and battle against another outsourcing of U.S. ingenuity, my friends in India would paint me a hypocrite if I didn’t share how we developed a very effective and close working relationship, and subsequent friendships, through our collaboration across twelve time zones.

In truth, I must give credit to my friend, Scott, a Senior Lead Engineer at a former employer. He is the one who figured out, and taught me, how to successfully collaborate with and utilize offshore design center fellows.

Before we discuss the solution, let’s take a moment and understand the problem objectively. Here are some of the common complaints I hear about offshore design groups. I’ll use “they” to mean the offshore personnel.

  • I could do it myself five times in the time it takes them to do it once
  • They are inexperienced
  • They don’t know what they are doing
  • They don’t follow the right standards
  • Their educations aren’t as good as someone from the U.S.
  • They aren’t very good engineers (I particularly resent this one)
  • Their designs are just poor

If you have offshore design centers, then I’m sure you could insert some more. You have probably heard similar complaints to the ones above as well.

Let’s break the complaints down, starting with it taking too long. First, generally speaking, the people in one design center don’t have visibility to the assignments and workload of people in the other design center. That means that we don’t know if the engineer taking so long is finishing other priorities first.

The instructions and understanding provided, including expectations, are a big factor. We might expect that a component or assembly be developed in three days, and we might even have remembered to say so. But, does the engineer on the other end have the interface information he needs to do his design? Did he get all of the data or requirements? Do you know that he understood?

If the engineer on the other end is missing any piece of information and has to e-mail back to get it, he is held up by a minimum of a day. Not only is there a delay in the response, but also there is a delay because of the time change and the fact that the e-mail request arrived in our inbox while we were having dinner with our families.

In terms of skill or education, it may be that the typical offshore design center will average younger and less experienced than a typical U.S. design center, but the gap is closing rapidly. Also, we all know that problem solving skill and job experience are much bigger contributors to engineering performance than education, so the education argument is, in my opinion, a small factor. Besides, many of those offshore resources were educated in the U.S. or Europe.

That leaves arguments concerning the quality of the designs returned. Granted, a poor engineer will likely produce a poor design, but we haven’t proven that these engineers are poor. There are a great many things that will contribute to a poor output and in my experience poor inputs are a more common factor than poor skills.

If we break down our complaints to the bottom line, the real reasons that engineers in an offshore center might be poorer than our own are that they lack experience, they lack skills, or they fall short on work ethic. I have some experience with engineers in Mexico, China, India, Malaysia, the U.S. and Europe. My experience is that offshore engineers are neither poor in work ethic, nor poor in skill, and the experience gap is closing fast.

The real reason that our offshore design centers fail to meet our expectations is because we have not enabled their success. That’s right, the real failure is ours, not theirs. If you need proof, take a quick look at the software development industry. That industry figured out long ago how to successfully collaborate on development projects in spite of vast regional gaps. It can be, and has been, done.

We all know the three most important factors in successful collaboration. Unfortunately, in spite of the obviousness of these factors, we don’t do a good job of applying them. They are as follows.

  1. Communication
  2. Communication
  3. Communication

Here is my greatest tip for communicating with offshore sites. E-mail is not an effective form of communication. It is great for sending data and deliverables. It works OK for short messages like, “Are you done yet?” It fails more times than not when it comes to explaining, persuading, or instructing.

To truly communicate we must pick up the phone. At a time when several design teams in the same business were struggling to collaborate with a design center in India, my friend Scott was having great success. I sat in on his team meetings to learn how.

His secret: he talked to the offshore design center, on the phone, every day. Yes, that is the secret. Disappointed? Do your engineers talk with offshore engineers every day? Are they collaborating well?

Here is what happens. We take for granted just how much communication takes place between engineers and other team members when we all work in the same location, or even the same time zone. If someone has a question, or needs information, they walk over, or pick up the phone and ask. Usually, they get their answer or information quickly.

We also take for granted just how much understanding is inherent in a collocated team that is not present between regionally separate teams. Because we all work together, we understand and share the same assumptions and habits. The only way to get the same understanding with a remote group is to work together as much like a collocated group as possible.

In addition to talking every day, Scott created some great habits that made daily conference calls very efficient and effective. Every call he would ask the same questions and everyone was ready with their answers.

  • What did we accomplish yesterday?
  • What will we accomplish today?
  • What problems do you need my help to overcome?
  • What suggestions do you have?
  • What questions do you have?

He would make sure that as many team members as possible, at both ends, were present for every call and that everyone shared. It was brilliantly effective.

I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being expected to teach engineers in a remote design center some Design for Six Sigma skills and tools, remotely. I was, as you might imagine, very uncertain about the successfulness of such an idea.

I employed Scott’s habits and methods. Each day we would meet and conduct a conference meeting to review a lesson, some examples, and I would provide a “homework” assignment example. The next day, we would review the homework that everyone had sent me while I slept and answer questions before diving into the next topic.

It took a long time, a lot of conference calls and early mornings or late nights for everyone involved, be we actually succeeded in successfully transferring the knowledge. It wasn’t long before the remote engineers were helping engineers ‘States-side to complete or correct DFSS analyses and studies.

There are two last points I want to share on how to get the most from your offshore design groups. First is the cultural gap. Realistically, the gap is small, but the small things can be very important. In particular, our sense of what is respectful or polite is often different from another culture’s sense of the same thing.

You can be certain that our offshore folks are trying very hard to understand our idiosyncrasies. We need to do the same, particularly in terms of politeness and respect. A great solution is to temporarily relocate engineers to the same design center for a few months.

The employer where Scott and I worked together did this. Each new engineer for the India design center would spend his or her first year working in the U.S. at one or more of our design centers. It was a great way for us all to get to know each other, and to mentor new personnel in our design methods and standards.

Second, we need to meet our remote teams half way in terms of making conference calls possible. If we are asking them to come in early, we need to be willing to stay late. Often, I would conference call with my friends in India from home, after I put my children to bed. 

I would have them call my cell number from a company phone, or we would use a free Internet conference service. Alternately, I would conference them on their cell phones at their homes, from an office phone here in the states when a whole team needed to talk with them.

By using what I learned from Scott, I and several other engineering teams were very successful in our collaborations with offshore engineers, and were in a few cases able to take advantage of the time zones to get work done faster. It absolutely can be done.

If your offshore design center is not working well for you, chances are it is because the inputs provided are not enabling its success. The key to providing the right inputs, quickly, and getting the outputs you expect, is communication.

Step up your communications with your remote team and see just how much performance improves. In addition, as you get to know your remote teammates, you will find it hard to dislike them, accuse them of incompetency, or believe they are not able to help you.

The executives that force us to work with offshore design groups probably did not factor in the inefficiencies in remote collaboration when they made their business model, true. But they are right in their predictions that the offshore engineers can be very effective at helping us with our design and development efforts.

Correct your own behaviors and assumptions with regard to your offshore partners. Improve your communications and ask some basic questions every day. Share information both ways and make sure that you are doing your part to enable their success. You will be very successful in collaborating with offshore partners, and you will probably make some long-lasting friendships along the way.

Stay wise, friends.

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