#287 from Innovative Leader Volume 6, Number 7          July 1997

Predicting Product Development
by Timothy Fohl

Mr. Fohl is president of Technology Integration Group, Inc., 681 South St., Carlisle, MA 01741 (phone 508-371-0194).

Let’s say that you’re a general manager trying to get a new product out.  What you’d like to do is get production started as soon as possible, coordinate the marketing push and convince the financial people to free up the money for all of this.  All these steps lend themselves to nice neat charts such as PERT, except for one ominous block:  when will product development be completed?

Although some products can be developed by systematically putting together known components in predictable ways, many cannot.  The development process involves pushing into unknown technical territory in search of hitherto unavailable performance, cost and/or reliability.  In other words, some inventing has to be done.  These blocks of time can be large, often running for years.

Typically, the only source of information about progress toward the performance goals of development programs is a series of mind-numbing meetings in which the various protagonists defend their failures to meet (usually overly optimistic) expectations.  From time to time, a senior R&D manager reminds you that, “You can’t schedule invention,” but you should commit to building the production facility anyway!  Clearly, it would be a whole lot better if we had a more objective measure of whether and when the goals of the development program will be achieved.

We were faced with this situation regularly at a major lighting company and decided to see if there weren’t some better tools.  What we felt was needed were indices of the state of the development process that could be tracked in a straightforward way, similar to the way in which companies routinely track financial numbers.  These parameters should be simple and easily understandable by those in production planning, market research, sales, finance and legal.  It’s essential that they personally feel comfortable with the data.  On the other hand, the parameters must truly reflect the state of the program’s progress.  Simply tracking statistics such as the number of people on the job or the number of experiments carried out tells the company very little.  As it turned out, there was very little in the business literature on this subject so we set out on our own.

Tracking

The first problem is to decide what you’re going to track.  We tried to collect all the data available on ongoing and past programs.  That brought us immediately to the next problem:  how to get real data.  Aside from the sometimes weak recording and discarding of data, there’s a certain suspicion when we (as “outsiders”) began to look at development program details.  It’s necessary to build a level of trust. 

We found a few parameters which were good indicators of the state of progress in the development process.  These parameters were simply the properly stated objectives of the product development program.  This may sound trivial, but sometimes these objectives aren’t clear or don’t remain constant.  In order to make progress, performance objectives must be clear in everyone’s mind.  This focuses all the small, often unrecorded, decisions made and lessons learned toward the desired result.  At the same time, the degree to which the various critical technical factors become understood and integrated into the program is measured by the improvement of these performance parameters. 

Examples of typical parameters were the lifetime and light output of the lamps under development.  When the lamps reached the pilot production stage, we tracked production parameters such as units per operator hour, or the percent of lamp starts resulting in satisfactory products.  In some complex projects it was necessary to subdivide them into programs with single objectives.  An example was an electroluminescent display program in which one subprogram was aimed at improving pixel brightness; another was aimed at reducing broken connections.

Results

From the point of view of outsiders, technical “breakthroughs” seem like flashes of inspiration occurring nearly instantaneously.  When one is on the inside, the trees tend to obscure the forest.  It was, then, with some surprise that we noticed that progress toward the goals was quite systematic in most cases.

Moreover, when we looked closer at the details of the programs where systematic progress wasn’t seen, it was due to one or more of the following factors:

  The objectives of the program changed.

  The program was disrupted by personnel or location changes.

  The recording and utilizing of test results was poor.

  The program was operating at the physical limits of the technology.

At this stage, we had already found two valuable ways to use these tools for managing the development process.  One is that when the performance parameters were plotted as a function of time or the number of experiments carried out, the rate of progress frequently is smooth enough so that extrapolations to future achievement of program objectives can be made with some confidence.  Perhaps more importantly, these extrapolations can be presented convincingly to nontechnical executives.  The other use is that flawed programs can be quickly diagnosed and fixed.

Looking beyond these points, we noticed a number of interesting characteristics in the behavior of different types of development programs.  A common type of program is to squeeze some marginal gain on the state of the art out of an existing technology.  This can require sophisticated and expensive methods and yield important market advantages, but it means the program is operating near the physical limits of the technology.

Under these circumstances, the curve of growth of the performance parameters shows diminishing returns.  That is, the rate of improvement slows as the program progresses.  When the physical limits are reached, the curve becomes horizontal and no further progress is possible unless a new technology is introduced.

Another, less obvious, phenomenon is that the fluctuations in the results from test to test diminish as the program progresses.  This is due to steadily increasing control over the various factors affecting performance.

We also studied programs which involved technologies in their infancy, very far from realizing their full potential.  An example is that of electroluminescent display panels.  When working with these unexploited technologies, the shape of the curves of progress show increasing returns, and the rate of progress increases as the program progresses.  We believe this is due to the program being able to concentrate its attention on the more important factors as it gains experience.  It spends less and less time chasing up blind alleys.

In young technology programs, the behavior of fluctuations in the results is also quantitatively different from that seen in mature technologies.  Whereas fluctuations in test results tend to diminish with time in mature technology programs, fluctuations in the immature technology programs tend to increase.  Sometimes there’s also a period in which the performance parameter fluctuates but doesn’t show any real improvement.  Then suddenly, progress takes off, showing growth and larger fluctuations.  This seems to be the result of the process of assembling large blocks of relevant information which, however, does not manifest itself in overt performance until it comes together in a coherent framework.  As is sometimes said, “We learned a lot of things not to do.”

Putting these two types of behavior together is instructive.  In the early stages of a developing technology, the rate of progress increases with time and the curve of progress bends upward.  In the later stages of development, the curve bends downward.  Thus, over the whole history of the development of a technology, the curve forms a shape like a flattened letter S.  This is precisely what is seen in the literature on the historic development of technologies such as steam engines.  But there has been relatively little explanation for it.

A full S curve is rarely seen in a single development program.  Usually the goals are more modest.  Products are introduced when the performance meets a marketable level not when the full potential is achieved.  Development programs operating near the maximum potential are usually launched when a good deal of the potential has already been discovered and exploited.

Using the Analysis

The most obvious application of these ideas is to make all aspects of the product development process more predictably concurrent.  Production facilities can be planned and built as the development program progresses.  Marketing research and product introduction plans can be implemented with a more certain idea of program timing. 

Another application is the use of these tracking methods to manage the programs themselves.  A cautionary word:  if the use of the data becomes punitive, the data will become useless.  Beyond identifying problems, there are other management functions that tracking of performance parameters can help.  There’s always the risk that pouring resources into a program can actually impede it (see, for example, The Mythical Man Month by Fredrick P. Brooks).  Conversely, reduction of resources can cause the program to become subcritical.  By monitoring the performance parameter progress curves, a rapid and accurate measure of the effect of such actions can be made.

The shapes of these curves can give valuable clues on the state of a technology.  If the growth curves show plateaus, perhaps that technology has been milked dry and a new approach should be sought.  On the other hand, we sometimes noticed that, although a program had reached its performance objectives, it had not yet plateaued.  A continued effort in the same direction seemed capable of and, in fact, did yield significant gains.

An intriguing way of using these methods is to track the progress of your competitors.  In several instances, we were able to get samples of products which a competitor introduced that were similar to products we had developed.  Often these introductions were premature and we were able to compare the state of the competitor’s performance parameters with our records.  This allowed us to estimate just when the competitor was going to have a truly equivalent product.  Of course, our strategy was to introduce an improved product at that point and send him back to the bottom of his learning curve!

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