Door 1, Door 2, Or Both?

What if instead of choosing between Option A and Option B you could choose a solution that was the best of both A and B?

What if instead of choosing between Option A and Option B you could choose a solution that was the best of both A and B? The synergistic Pugh method of concept selection gives us the power to do just that.

So often in business, and particularly in product development, we must make difficult decisions between a small set of offered options. Synergy is a word that became much overused during the Total Quality Management era and by those who incorporated Covey’s 7 Habits, but when properly understood it is a terribly powerful weapon for better solutions.

Simply put, in useful language, synergy is a phenomenon whereby the work of two (or more) people is combined to get an output greater than twice the individual efforts. When creatively trying to solve problems the phenomenon of synergy is incredibly potent. What if you could deliberately, consistently, cause synergy to happen?

The Pugh method of concept selection has been around for a very long time and may be more forgotten than remembered, but it is still a simple and effective way of driving synergistic problem solving. Let me briefly show you how it works so you can give it a try.

Stuart Pugh was a renowned British design engineer and university professor. He wrote his own book titled Total Design and was also published, post mortem, in conjunction with Dr. Don Clausing with a book titled, Creating Innovative Products Using Total Design: The Living Legacy of Stuart Pugh, 1996. The latter includes material from many of Dr. Pugh’s technical papers in addition to the concepts in his own book. If your product development methodology could use a good shot in the arm, I recommend checking out either book from the library – the second will be easier to find.

Stuart Pugh is perhaps most famous for this concept selection method; it is how I came to learn about him. It is elementally simple and it is very effective at driving ideas that are an improvement upon the initial options. It can be done alone for important decisions such as hiring personnel or buying a major purchase, but it is much more effective in groups where synergy can take place.

The Pugh method uses a simple decision matrix the likes of which we are all familiar. Along the left of the matrix, list the key decision or selection criteria, preferably in order of importance. For each one, give it a numeric importance value. Across the top of the matrix list the various options from which to choose.

Please refer to Figure 1 for an example decision matrix. To use a scoring method to help drive an objective decision, rate how well each option satisfies each success criteria. To score each option, multiply its score by the importance rating of the relevant success criteria and add up each of your mathematical products.

Figure 1: Typical Decision Matrix

If you look at the example in Figure one, it might appear that the objective scoring indicates that Option A is better than Option B.  However, an examination of the real trade-offs might cause us to second-guess. Option A simply does not satisfy the second-most important criteria at all. Unfortunately, Option B doesn’t satisfy the most important criteria very well. If this were a new product concept, we might not feel very good about competing with either option.

Here is where the Pugh method comes to the rescue. The Pugh method simply tasks us to look at the key strengths of our various concepts and challenge ourselves to look for ways in which strong elements from either might be incorporated into the others’ designs. It challenges us to think beyond what immediately appears feasible and look for ways to leverage multiple ideas to create even better ones.

It sounds obvious, and to some extent most engineers and problem solvers do this automatically. However, there is a big difference between a cursory look for opportunities, and a structured deep dive into a variety of designs by a group of people who are all focusing their collective brain power on the same task.

I’ve facilitated the Pugh method many times and have never failed to come up with at least one option, usually several, that is significantly better than the initial set presented. How can this really be so simple?

In almost every case, the initial set of ideas or solutions is generated either by individuals or small teams. Even if a large team is collaborating on generating a set of possible solutions, much of the initial focus is on developing a solution far enough to evaluate whether it is viable. While we are developing, we are not necessarily searching or looking at what we are assembling with a critical eye.

When we break out the decision matrix we do use a critical eye. When we use the matrix in a group session, we get many critical perspectives applied. The result is a break from the euphoria of a creative solution-coming-to-fruition and an objective look at an idea’s feasibility. Then we reverse the phenomenon on itself.

When we have our objective evaluations complete, we challenge the whole group to answer why it isn’t possible to have the best of both A and B. When the whole group is now looking at each solution concept with an objective mind bent on breaking the rules, it can be amazing how creative the possibilities become.

Within minutes the group will come up with a list of ways the best elements of the initial design might be incorporated or melded. Use the matrix to sketch these possibilities out and prioritize which ones are most worth pursuing. Make assignments and send the team out to see if they can make it happen.

When those ideas have been developed into possible concepts, re-convene and re-score the matrix. It’s not unusual to do this three times total before a final “super concept” is clearly rising to the top.  It is rarely necessary to do more than three rounds total. Figure 2 gives an example of how a completed decision matrix might look after the Pugh method is applied.

Figure 2:  Completed Pugh Concept Selection Matrix

Take a quick look at the Alternate #3 option in the figure. Imagine the power of launching a new product that your team scores a 40 compared to the initial options, which scored only 28 and 27. I know that the example included in this post is complete nonsense, but I’ve facilitated many Pugh concept development sessions where the final score was more than twice what the initial options scored. It’s a real phenomenon.

The power is not in the decision matrix tool. That is merely a facilitation tool to get the entire group to agree upon and perceive the challenge. It is also a great communication tool for explaining why you are doing another round of concept development or why your team has chosen the design concept it did. The matrix tool is very, very useful, but it is not the magic.

The magic is in getting the entire evaluation team, which can include engineers, sales personnel, manufacturing personnel, or marketing personnel, with a diversity of perspectives, to all focus their energy on challenging why a new alternative couldn’t have the best of each. Combine this practice of creative problem solving with other tools such as the Value Management method, TRIZ method of inventive problem solving, or Axiomatic Design, and the concepts can really explode into a variety of powerful options.

If I have you convinced enough to try it out, let me give you a few tips to make it work better and more efficiently, with fewer arguments.

  • Make the value ratings for the success criteria as simple as possible.
  • Do not allow two success criteria to have equal value ratings – force your team to answer the binary question, “if you could only satisfy This or That, which would you do?”
  • Keep the scores for how well an option satisfies a criteria as simple as possible: I recommend 0-3 (not at all, minimally, well enough, better than all the others) or a binary 0-1 (no, yes) score system.
  • Use only the top, critical success criteria in the matrix, a large matrix leads to long meetings and a poor design can end up out-scoring a good one just because it satisfies a whole bunch of unimportant stuff.
  • If volume production is the environment, manufacturability should be one of your top, critical success criteria.
  • Make sure your Sales or Marketing function has a say in what success criteria is most important; use customer data if possible
  • Do not evaluate more that 5-7 options at a time, fewer than 5 is most efficient.
  • Plan for two or three rounds of concept investigation and decision-making in your project plan, it is time well spent for sure.

The Pugh method of concept selection is a brilliantly simple exercise and tool that produces powerful results. I strongly recommend every engineering design function and marketing service development function to adopt it.

Like any methodology, there is a learning curve and your first execution might not go as smoothly as you might imagine. Don’t be discouraged. There were a couple of design teams with whom I facilitated this tool often enough that they turned the practice into a habit. The teams would automatically start going through the Pugh method thought process, matrix tool or none, at both formal design reviews as well as informal team meetings where one or more were describing an idea. It was amazing to watch and exceedingly powerful in terms of results.

Stuart Pugh was an insightful engineer and professor. His method for driving synergistic product concept development may be his greatest claim to fame.  If you do not already incorporate it, give it a try. The best solutions are both simple and effective and the Pugh method is one of the best. If your teams are already familiar with Pugh, check to see that the method is working. Ensure that the team effort to break the initial perceptions and challenge the designs is taking place, that they are not simply scoring a matrix. Your new solutions and designs could be much more powerful as a result.

Stay wise, friends.

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