6 Ways to Reduce Unpredictability in Product Development

“I’m flying by the seat of my pants”

Anyone that has ever worked in a Product Development team would have heard an Engineer say this at least a couple of times. Why? Product Development or Engineering is an inherently unpredictable process. 

What is a Heuristic?

The Product Development or Engineering process can be aptly defined as the use of engineering heuristics to cause the best change in a poorly understood situation within the available resources or in simple English – “Doing the best I can with what I’ve got with what I know at the moment”

Heuristic means – enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves, typically using a practical method which is not perfect, guaranteed or rational, but is still enough to reach an immediate short-term goal. In fact, the term “Fly by the seat your pants” means to work by feel or instinct without formal guidelines or experience. When people fly by the seat of their pants, they do not plan ahead. They think about what they are going to do and make decisions as each choice comes up.

Everything the engineer does in his role is under the control of a heuristic. He often doesn’t have the complete picture, or enough information to be absolutely sure of something or know the next steps to take. And more often than not, he is more confident of everything he doesn’t know at the moment, than what he does know or will know in the future. The engineer instinctively knows this feeling in his gut and calls it “doing the best you can with what you’ve got”, “flying by the seat of my pants” or “just muddling through”.

Reducing Unpredictability

So, if Product Development is unpredictable and on its best day, only partially controllable, what can you do to improve the situation? What does one do to reduce the unpredictability and improve the level of control?

The answer is remarkably simple! Realize that Product Development is more about learning quickly and less about creating product. Product Development, at its core, is about helping order to emerge from the unpredictability and chaos by learning quickly and helping others learn quickly too. Product Development is more about Knowledge Management and less about creating product.

Engineers get exposed to rapidly arriving new information every day during the course of a New Product Development project. They have to understand it, organize it and then react to it rapidly. They make multiple micro-decisions on an hourly basis. In order to enable them to do this effectively and reduce the risk of unpredictability and make good decisions quickly, you have to shift decision-making authority from upper management to their level. And the only way you can trust them with this new responsibility, is to improve their knowledge and speed of learning.

Types of Knowledge

There are two different types of knowledge – Explicit Knowledge and Tacit Knowledge

Explicit knowledge is easily organized  or systematic information. It can be transferred without significant loss of content and context. Ex: Facts, unquestionable information in Textbooks, Research papers or Test Reports

Tacit knowledge is also called know-how or experience. It is complex and hard to organize into systematic information. Difficult to transfer and can be anecdotal. It requires dense ties and long relationships – Ex: Master and Apprentice. In fact, apprenticeship was developed as a way to transfer tacit knowledge/know-how. Tacit knowledge is what we just feel and know in our gut, it is “second nature”.

In highly technical environments such as Product Development, tacit knowledge is the true source of a company’s competitive edge! 

The other thing to keep in mind is the stages of learning. There are 4 stages of learning –

  • Unconscious Incompetence or “I’m not aware of what I do not know”
  • Conscious Incompetence or ” I recognize and am aware of what I don’t know”
  • Conscious Competence or “I know the tasks I’m good at, and I’m working on bridging my knowledge gaps”
  • Unconscious Competence or “I’m so good at doing this, I can do it in my sleep or while I’m doing something else”

6 Ways to Reduce Unpredictability and Improve Learning

So, how do you begin the process of learning, gaining that tacit knowledge and achieving “Unconscious Competence”? Begin with the following –

  1. Going to the Gemba! Go to the shop floor, visit your suppliers, attend trade-shows etc.
  2. 1:1 Mentoring
    1. Learning focused problem solving. Making mistakes can have a positive impact on learning.
    2. Helping the Engineers see the “big picture” of how their work fits into the process and organization as a whole
    3. Help the Engineers learn who the internal and external customers of their processes are.
  3. Daily Huddles focused on removing roadblocks
    1. Keeping a constantly updated list of Knowns vs Unknowns for the project is very helpful with Daily and Weekly Huddles
  4. Having engineers from the Suppliers do new technology demo’s, or having them be co-located with your team to answer questions in real-time about manufacturing capability.
  5. Reflection Events
    1. Spending time at the onset of the project investigating mistakes and successes of past projects
    2. Conducting a post-mortem reflection after the project concludes
  6. Build, maintain and continuously update an ever-growing Knowledge Database that is organized, accessible and searchable.

References – 1. Lean Product and Process Development – Allen Ward, Durward Sobek, 2. Developing Products in Half the Time – Preston Smith, Donald Reinertson

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