Agile hardware development ensures engineering teams remain flexible in a quick-changing global market. But to keep waste down, experts say, lean product development is still your best bet. Here’s a quick intro to lean, where it comes from, and what you’ll likely need to get started.
For a quick refresher on the agile and lean approaches, ASQ has a good summary. Or check out one of our recent posts on the pros and cons for agile hardware product development.
Toyota and the birth of lean
When James Womack and colleagues published The Machine that Changed the World in 1990, managers everywhere took notice. The book revealed for the first time how Toyota cut waste and created value using a production system commonly called “lean.”
Lean manufacturing introduced us to tools like the A3 report, value stream mapping, and kanbans. Most importantly, lean introduced us to a philosophy that said there is always a simpler, less wasteful way to do things.
The results were stunning, and over time healthcare, software, government, retail, and other sectors all adopted lean principles to improve their processes.
But the truth is, lean manufacturing methods didn’t map perfectly to development processes, and it wasn’t until 2006 that Jeffrey Liker and James Morgan described how Toyota applied the philosophy to its engineering teams in The Toyota Product Development System: Integrating People, Process And Technology. As such, lean development is still relatively immature, and experts don’t always agree on how best to execute it.
Learn more: To understand the principles of lean product development, find a copy of the Liker book. But here are a couple digest versions if you’re just skimming:
Getting started: Change everything, or just one or two things
Early thought leaders said you would have to restructure the entire engineering process at once to do lean right. “A successful move toward lean product development requires approaching … interrelated techniques as elements of a coherent whole,” said an early scholarly work on the subject.
But in case studies of companies that had successfully implemented lean principles in Sweden, researchers found just the opposite. “Neither at Leine & Linde, nor at Ericsson … is the lean philosophy adopted in general,” say the case study authors. “This implies on one level that firms could approach lean product development as a resource of tools to pick from.”
That’s good news if you’re overwhelmed by the thought of engaging in a new approach to development. Here’s more good news: Most experts today suggest that to get started, you should work on a single, proof of concept project.
Learn more. For a good discussion of how a real-world company might approach its first attempts at adopting lean principles, check out this discussion among some of the biggest names in the discipline.
The tools of lean: Refreshingly unsophisticated
While lean can be a confusing mix of ideas and directives, the equipment is refreshingly unsophisticated. Some teams use butcher paper and Post-it notes for their kanbans and value stream mapping processes. Toyota’s original “know-how database” was a pile of printed pieces of paper…the database came later.
Learn more. Many of the checklist, evaluation, and process tools that lean practitioners use, many are readily available on the Internet, and usually for free. Here are a few to get you thinking:
- A3 process and templates. A3 is paper size, a structured problem-solving method, and a tool for knowledge capture and sharing. It’s one of the basics in the lean toolbox.
- LESAT Enterprise Self-Assessment Tool. MIT’s Lean Advancement Initiative supports this tool to assist in the enterprise transformation process by providing a structured tool and reference for enterprise assessment.
- Value Stream Mapping. Ready to create your own value stream map? Lucidchart has a free, cloud-based flowchart tool that includes the symbols specific to VSM. You can also just as easily find solutions for Excel and Visio.
If you’ve read this far and clicked some of the links above, you’re starting to understand what lean is all about. But what does it mean to an engineer’s day-to-day work? Will you have to adopt new design software? And does anyone besides management consultants profit from all this “philosophy”?
We’ll explore those questions and tell you where to find some of the most credible discussions about lean product development in an upcoming post.
More teams are using Cloud, Analytics, Mobile, and Social tools to speed up product development. Independent analyst firm, Consilia Vektor, explains how this changes Product Data Management (PDM) as you know it and how this can help your team work smarter.