We all understand the importance of collaboration. We know, at least intuitively, that by collaborating people can accomplish more than they could as separate individuals. Yet, product companies that try to achieve effective team collaboration often find that collaboration, like corporate brand, is not well-defined and frequently discounted as too touchy-feely for structured engineering work.
How, indeed, do we make the point that collaboration in product engineering is important? Surely there are some meaningful and tangible values beyond the infrequent Kumbayah moments of positive project reviews, team-building exercises, and high-fives.
Multiple research projects identified both tangible and “soft” benefits of collaboration. These are too numerous to list here or even pick a few, but an old report “Companies Without Borders – Collaborating to Compete” by the Economist Intelligence Unit is a good place to start.
The quantifiable benefits of collaboration in engineering organizations can be summarized in a few high level themes, although when it comes to proving a “hard” proof of return on investments, some analyses make wrong assumptions about efficiency improvements.
- Faster time to market
- Increased design reuse
- Fewer mistakes and design changes
- Improved manufacturability
- Greater overall “organizational IQ”
Engineering Software: Collaboration Help or Hindrance?
Recognizing the potential value of collaboration, product organizations have responded by investing in engineering tools such as CAD and CAE software, and in process governance PLM tools. These tools have contributed significantly to improving the efficiency of design engineers in accomplishing highly complex individual tasks.
However, these engineering tools are myopic and create blind spots, especially when it comes to gauging the impact of certain design decisions on downstream activities, a challenge exacerbated by distributed engineering and design teams, outsourced manufacturing, and elongated supply chain networks. Engineering teams need effective methods and tools for effective multidisciplinary collaboration when decision-making must traverse functional, hierarchical, and business unit boundaries.
But, as some will quickly point out, collaboration isn’t exactly free, especially in global engineering and manufacturing organizations, where collaboration levies additional burden such as overhead of versioning and managing multiple design and prototyping iterations, and coordinating engineering and manufacturing partners in remote facilities.
Ironically, sometimes the best intentions to engage in design collaboration fail in the face of the harsh reality of poor IT systems implementations that hinder the engineers ability to share and reuse design information and best practices: incompatible software, multiple information systems that are not accessible to the entire organization, or systems that treat important non-engineering design as BLOBs (Binary Large Objects) that cannot be indexed and searched for.
“Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast"
Obviously, engineers need to see the value in collaboration. They need to agree that spending extra time creating and sharing information, and then applying it downstream, for example, in manufacturing and service operation, is worthwhile. They also need to see value in reusing known concepts, existing designs and available inventory parts.
Sadly, many such collaboration and reuse opportunities go fallow. We see design teams ignoring manufacturability constraints and serviceability considerations. We see engineers designing new parts rather than using an existing design, or, better yet, modify a design to allow the use of a part already in inventory or available from an approved supplier.
Some of the issue may be attributed to mediocre collaboration tools and suboptimal implementation and process workflow, leading to poor utilization of methods and systems. But technology alone cannot be blamed for lack of interest in collaboration, and merely replacing one PDM system by another might not result in increased utilization, better collaboration and higher team productivity.
Peter Drucker famously said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." The origin of the quote actually appears to be Ford Motor Company’s CEO Mark Fields who mistakenly attributed it to Peter Drucker.
And I might paraphrase Drucker’s saying: “Culture eats strategy AND technology for breakfast.”
Consider the following ideas to help instill a culture of collaboration and utilization of design collaboration tools:
- Reject the culture of “not invented here”, reinventing the wheel and of poor reuse, and instill a spirit of collaboration based on tangible operational and strategic benefits such as faster time to market, fewer mistakes and design changes, and improved manufacturability.
- Establish product development process consistency and drive to reach a higher level of coordination within the company and in the supply chain using standardized methods.
- Drive to achieve greater cohesion among functional areas, including those of suppliers.
- Make collaboration an integral part of product development process by frontloading multidisciplinary decisions that, by definition, necessitate cross-functional collaboration.
Articulate a clear value definition for collaboration and publicize tangible benefits achieved through design collaboration and reuse.
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