Developing Products Is About Learning

Product development is a learning activity, fundamentally no different than any class you’ve had in school.

You start off with a goal, and only a general idea of how to get there. As you learn more about the product you are developing you get closer to that goal. Sometimes you hit roadblocks that you cannot find any way to overcome. Once in a while, things go exactly the way you thought they would. Most of the time product development falls somewhere in between these extremes.

I think that we all recognize this. The path through a product development project is uncertain, making project planning difficult. How many times are we going to design/test/redesign? What testing will we be doing? We can guess, be we don’t know. The duration of even “standard” activities have a lot of variability, and may easily vary by a factor of ten. Telling the boss or a customer when you expect to complete a product development project is very difficult, because the schedule is necessarily uncertain.

Instead of being an exercise in executing a project plan, product development is a sequence of learning cycles; it’s about constantly climbing the learning curve.

Project planning for product development can take this into account. Instead of drawing up plans where we say “specify this, then design it, then build it” in very sequential and defined steps, we can instead focus on the unknowns and the learning curve. Our plans can be focused on the unknowns; on the things that we need to learn in order to successfully complete the development. This turns our development process into a series of learning cycles, with known activities worked in around the learning activities.

More importantly, it forces us to plan. At the very beginning of the development process, we will have to think about the things that we don’t know and think about ways to turn them into designed product. We will have to think ahead. Planning like this is priceless.

Like any good project plan, there will be a planning horizon. We will progressively add detail as we go. At the earliest stages, we will just set out blocks of “we need to figure this out.” The team that will be doing the work needs to be involved in this, and they need to estimate the duration and possible variability of such events. As we get closer, the team needs to plan in greater detail, until you get to well-defined “learning events” with two- to four-week durations. Each “learning event” needs to have the desired outputs specified and the activities for each member of the team clearly laid out. At the end of each learning event, the team needs to regroup, share what they’ve learned and plan the next event. The level of planning conducted and the duration of each event needs to be determined by the amount of risk that the organization is willing to adopt.

Of course, not all learning events are going to come out with the desired results. That’s the nature of learning, and the cause of uncertainty and variation in product development. In fact, if you have an effective organization, about fifty percent of each learning cycle will have to be repeated. Unlike manufacturing, where repeating the same work—rework—is considered waste, this “rework” is value-added, because learning is a necessary part of the job. If your organization does not have mature processes for organizational learning, then you may have to repeat as much as ninety percent of the work. These extra repeats are not value-added; they are waste.

There are ways to reduce the cost associated with the learning cycles, and to reduce the number of cycles. TRIZ, for instance, can greatly shorten learning cycles and reduce the number of them by enabling engineers to learn from the hard-earned lessons of others. Processes that help the organization better understand the customer, such as QFD, add cycles at the beginning of the project. However, these cycles cost little and are entirely value-added, and they prevent or significantly reduce the number of costly, non-value-added cycles “fixing,” or reworking, a product design late in the development process.

When you have a roll in product development—whether as engineer, customer interface, product testing or manufacturing—keep this in mind: in product development, the real value to your organization comes from learning, and design your organization and processes accordingly.

I will discuss TRIZ, QFD, organizational design for product development and planning for product development in more detail in the future. In the meantime, I suggest reading Joel Spolsky’s thoughts on obtaining reliable schedules in product development.