Ever hear the phase ‘9 women can’t make a baby in a month?’ The first time I hear that phrase was from a boss and mentor of mine, a VP of Engineering. He said this in response to an unreasonable request to compress an already ridiculous project timeline even further by adding more people onto the task. At the time I thought it was a humorous statement, a reduction to the absurd to make a point but he was right on the money. Later in my career I realized that my mentor may have borrowed the phrase from a 1975 publication by Fredrick Brooks, but that does not matter. It was more impactful to hear it from the old goat himself.
What does this have to do with lean, or with lean applications in the product design cycle? Well from my perspective, I don’t believe that Lean specifically means fast, rather it means an even flow. Of course time savings are a byproduct of lean practices to standardize process and eliminate waste, but lean itself does not make things quick. In the procurement and manufacturing world lean may mean ordering components within lead-time to minimize both ‘waiting’ and ‘time on shelf’ of the component or work step. This is flow, a constant procession of product or objects through the workflow without bottlenecks or voids. The design cycle has a lot of similarities.
In the product design cycle there is a schedule of events that occur, from innovation to practical application to testing, documentation and release. Some steps are easier to quantify than others and some steps have large variation, but as a whole it can be considered a black box or lead time. In order for design cycles to flow like a lean operation, triggers to initiate the cycle must be strategically planned, and the output of the design cycle must be anticipated and planned for downstream. Just like manufacturing, upstream and downstream keys must be in synch to avoid the same bottlenecks and voids.
The departure of the product design cycle and the manufacturing cycle is in scalability and the level of skilled labor. In lean manufacturing, process sets are specifically designed to be easily reproducible so ‘manufacturing cells’ may be added or removed to meet demand peaks or lulls. In the design cycle, in contrast, labor is fairly specialized, expensive and time-intensive to train to the brand image. This means that opening an additional engineering cell is too time intensive to react to demand spikes, and reducing forces is too expensive to lose all the training and brand investment in the staff.
This is where 9 women can’t make a baby in a month, it’s just not that simple. Adding resources to crash a schedule in the design cycle will eventually crosses a point of diminishing returns. To take this a step further, if you have spare resources available to add to critical path items, you may have too many high dollar assets for your workload. For the design cycle to maintain a constant flow, Product Management decisions on development tasks must be strategic and timely, and operations activity must be ready to accept work product to get goods to market.
With proper planning, 9 women can deliver 9 babies in 9 months, but that’s a different story.
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