Product Development

The Game Changer

30 March 2012 | Team EACPDS


In a recent meeting at a client, the CEO said that the flow of new products was the lifeblood of his organization. The company relied on product development to establish its competitive position in the marketplace. That sentiment can be generalized to most companies. But what we’ve observed as we visit a wide variety of companies is that most of the competitive energy around product development is focused internally.  There is more observable ‘competing within’ than ‘competing on behalf of’ their companies.

We understand that a significant portion of the basis of this in-fighting ties to the unconscious, habitual application of the management principles of Frederick Taylor.  Current leaders of product development appear to collectively understand there is a need for change, but lack the tools to overcome deeply entrenched, counterproductive management habits.

Our last great chance to shuck off this flawed and self-limiting management style occurred during World War II.  Training-Within-Industry (TWI) was the successful Army-led effort to create an efficient workforce out of the men and women entering the factories, replacing former factory workers who were now on the front lines.  While Henry Ford a half-century earlier had lamented that every set of hands came attached to a whole, questioning person, TWI embraced the whole being and taught workers not only the key point of what they were building but went so far as to explain WHY they were key points.   TWI’s “Every person must be seen as an individual” was a clear precursor to Lean’s “Respect and trust your workers”.

The improvements brought to management during the war were lost as the returning tide of ex-soldiers reclaimed their spots along the assembly lines and in the offices of the factories.  Management reverted to pre-war ways.

At the same time, MacArthur was bringing TWI to war-ravaged Japan.  TWI, by then reformed as a private company, helped reestablish an industrial base in Japan. And the more effective management practice that had been ‘piloted’ in American factories during the war became the basis of Japanese practice.  This exportation of competitive advantage flew under the radar in optimistic and prosperous post-war America.

Early in my career, I worked as a research engineer in Japan at electronics giant, Sharp Corporation.  As a part of my basic training, I was led through a problem-solving approach (now associated with Lean) that combined the benefits of the Deming Cycle (PDCA) and the A3 communication tool.  When I returned to the states and throughout my career (which has centered on product development) I was regularly challenged by the chaotic environment in which we execute Product Development, especially in comparison to my experience in Japan.

When Lean Product Development emerged as a new management framework in the early 21st century, I saw that it reflected what I had observed first hand in Japan.  As I was drawn deeper into an understanding and appreciation of the system, I came full circle back to A3s.  Through the A3 insights in the writings of Durward Sobek and John Shook, and in private conversations with Sobek, I realized the power of PDCA and A3s.  I also realized that my basic training had provided me with an advantage that had been displaced on my return to the States – a personal microcosm of the abandonment of our advantage when the World War II veterans returned home.

Peter Drucker was a results-based champion of Frederick Taylor and of Taylor’s contribution to economic growth in the 20th century.  But in the 1980s, with the emergence and expansion of the knowledge workforce, Drucker realized that the limitations and problems inherent in Taylor’s management methods were inappropriate and ineffective in the information age and the knowledge economy.  To achieve necessary high productivity from this new class of worker, something better than blunt force management was needed.

So let’s think of product development, executed by knowledge workers, as a competitive event. Like an athletic contest in which we encounter an advantaged opponent, we need a game changer. The obvious game changer is a field leveler.  It is the widespread embrace and adoption of that American creation, PDCA, the scientific method applied to knowledge work, and its application through its companion tool, the A3.

A parting thought is that to just pick up these tools and apply them at a tool based level will blunt their effectiveness.  They must be applied at a principle-based level with a full understanding of their motivational and developmental value in the context of a larger system. But more about that in a later blog.