When I set out to write this blog series, the overall idea was to look at engineering organizations within large product companies and discuss practices and tools that would benefit engineering teams in small companies. Smaller organizations often feel that small team size and direct communication among engineers reduce the need for complex formal product data management software, and that such tools might even reduce the agility and flexibility of engineers.
In previous blog posts I discussed some challenges facing product companies of every size such as ECO management and compliance. In fact, I showed that in some instances smaller companies are at greater risk than their much larger counterparts.
But in this blog post I’d like begin by siding with the small guys…
The small team advantage
Not that long ago I conducted an analysis for a major automotive company. The purpose of the analysis was to review methods and practices used by the engineering organization to develop embedded hardware and control software, primarily for in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems, and compare them to this company’s suppliers and competitors. An important part of the assessment was to take the comparison outside the auto industry and compare the findings with other industries, including aerospace and defense (A&D).
One of the A&D projects I reviewed was the retrofitting of military aircraft with modern Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and avionics. In particular, I wanted to study how the project managed ECOs: how defects were detected, the process to conduct root cause analysis and propose a design change, and, overall, how the process was managed and documented. The technical details of the projects and some of the working methods are obviously classified, but even without the specifics, this project offers an interesting perspective on the development of embedded control hardware and software.
To my great surprise, the engineering process at that company was not as structured and as rigorously managed as you’d expect from an A&D contractor. And this was not a reflection of carelessness that resulted in poor performance. Rather, the company relies on small teams of bright, experienced and hardworking design engineers. They use a “tiger team” approach and really push the envelope of agile development methodology to tackle and wrestle down each problem until it is solved.
And the detailed documentation of the root cause and corrective action usually waits until the process is done, which, by the way, is just fine if you are a hardcore agile development devotee.
It works, but…
This method is no doubt highly effective, but not quite efficient.
The obvious concern is that this project’s knowledge base resides between the project engineers’ ears. As a result, it is difficult to locate expertise and apply them efficiently, and even an experienced team may be slow to ramp up and is bound to repeat past mistakes as they are unable to reuse prior knowledge.
I guess if you are a large aerospace company where headcount isn’t considered a critical resource you may feel that “throwing people at the problem” in order to meet aggressive project schedules is a pragmatic, if wasteful, approach. But most companies cannot afford this luxury.
Does leveraging the “small team advantage” mean we must let critical knowledge go to waste?
The design engineering landscape is changing
The product engineering process in most industries is changing. Even large manufacturing companies like aircraft manufacturing that used to be highly vertically integrated operations are becoming flatter and distributed organizations. Whereas design teams used to be in a handful of locations, often in one location for design and another location for manufacturing, today’s product companies are built upon globally distributed teams. These teams may be organic, or, quite frequently are networks of partners, suppliers, and subcontractors.
Yet another factor that is slowly rising to become a major concern is the aging workforce. Many experienced engineers are leaving the workplace in a steady pace, taking their knowledge and expertise that were never captured and formalized, with them. At the same time, some baby boomers choose to “retire” into part-time freelance contracting.
So your project team members keep changing, continually and unexpectedly and the lines between employees and contractors are increasingly blurred.
As organizations’ structure, information flow and decision making processes keep changing, they need to reduce knowledge attrition and waste and improve their ability to apply knowledge effectively and efficiently.
Product data management strategy
Having a product data strategy in place is critical for any size organization, especially when business process fragmentation and agile development methodologies appear to stand in the way of knowledge retention and sharing
Admittedly, implementing a product data management (PDM) system that focuses on centralizing BOM management and forcing rigid processes may seem. Perhaps a large monolithic PDM system does not work well for small engineering teams and might stifle the small team advantage.
At the same time, informal email exchanges and loose documents aren’t enough. Smaller organizations do not have the luxury of wasting time looking for information, repeating past mistakes, be found out of compliance, or any number of wasteful activities that large organizations might be able to get away with.
A small team PDM strategy should focus on establishing common methods and web-based CAD file management and ECO management tools that facilitate effective internal and partner collaboration using common parts and methods. While focusing on effective and efficient small team collaboration, the strategy roadmap should scale to improve knowledge retention and reuse across the extended enterprise, including customers, partners and suppliers.
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