In product development, designing just the right product is only half the battle. Getting it out the door is the other half. That’s where the well-managed workflow comes in.
Who worries about workflows?
New or small companies may not have much structure set up at all, let alone documented workflows. That makes sense, sort of. Responsiveness and quick turnarounds make little guys competitive. An on-the-fly approach to product development may seem to help you retain your scrappy character.
Enterprises all use formalized workflows. In fact, there may be mountains of them. They start with a process, a problem arises, they add an extra review and signoff to make sure it never happens again, some more forms to be filled out, and the cycle repeats until everything seems bureaucratized and perhaps not terribly efficient.
Despite these seemingly diverse scenarios, large and small companies can both suffer from the same problem: Unexamined workflows.
Workflows make it all possible
No matter their size, processes are part of what makes companies successful. There’s the famous example of Henry Ford’s assembly line, which made affordable cars possible. But even in modern times, a digital prototype that replaces one or more physical prototypes shaves significant costs and time off the development cycle, which gets the product to market for less, which makes it more competitive.
Well-tuned workflows at every step in the cycle save time, prevent rework, and provide accountability. In short, it pays to manage your workflows.
In his pivotal paper, A Model Based Method for Organizing Tasks in Product Development (pdf), Steven Eppinger encourages large project teams (think the automobile or airplane industries) to take a meta view of their product development processes to better compete against those scrappier smaller teams. This is often a multi-faceted effort, involving consultants and much of the team. It can take a great deal of time and resource, but it pays off in better efficiency.
Workflows to focus on fixing
That said, smaller teams trying to keep up with the Goliaths (or simply individuals not in a position to move an entire organization), often improve efficiency by making adjustments to just the highest impact workflows.
If you’re rethinking your processes, here are a few areas to look at, why they’re important, and some tips for making the most of them:
- Engineering Change Notices. The ECN workflow matters because it comes late in the development cycle. That means it can cost a lot, especially if parts have already been tooled and tested. As an engineer, you want to get the project back on track as quickly as possible. A good ECN workflow will include mechanisms for reporting the problem, routing the task to the right engineer, and allowing that engineer to quickly open the correct version of the model, modify it, and get signoff.
- New Project Launch. The majority of new products are built on old models. A surprising number of engineers who still use the desktop file system or shared folders say that they spend days looking for and/or recreating those old models. A good vaulting and revisioning process can eliminate the search and rebuilding, providing a valuable jumpstart to any new project.
- Bids. Responding to RFPs is a unique activity in that there’s no ROI on your time if you don’t win the deal! Again, look for ways to leverage existing work: documents, formulas, and even models that you already have.
- Concurrent Engineering/Collaboration. If your design process includes multiple colleagues and partners all participating concurrently, a lot of opportunity arises for confusion and unnecessary costs. Data may be overwritten, old files lost, etc. A good workflow for concurrent engineering is secure, tracks changes, prevents overwriting, and, at the same time, promotes collaboration.
Another approach to better managing workflows is to automate wherever you can. An electronic process saves manpower and prevents human error. The solution might be as complex as a full-blown PLM system or a workflow extension on your CAD system. Of course, GrabCAD Workbench can do much of the collaboration, vaulting, and versioning work for improved workflows. But you can also enlist something as simple as SharePoint to get started.
There is no one right solution for any company because different products, industries, and teams have their own unique needs. In the end, the message is not to adopt this particular approach or that, but simply to manage your workflows thoughtfully and intentionally.
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