Why it’s so hard to reduce product development cycle times

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We have already learned that most manufacturing and engineering companies around the world want to reduce their product development and engineering cycle times, but are unable to do so.

At the same time, we also found that these companies were wasting more than 70% of the time in their communication processes

Before we conceived any solution at Unifize, we needed to understand how and why all this time was being wasted.

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Engineering is a series of communication processes

In an earlier blog, we explained that engineering is a series of communication processes.

To achieve their goals, engineering businesses usually require a large combination of skills and resources, which are unlikely to be found by any one person (or even in one company).

Thus, organisations, teams and supply chains form, which all need to collaborate with one another to achieve a given organisation’s broader objectives.

They do this by repeatedly exchanging information within and across different internal and external teams – or, in other words, following communication processes.

In our problem discovery interviews at Unifize, we found that engineering teams were wasting more than 70% of their time in these communication processes, which would explain why their product development and engineering cycle times are taking too long.

Communication, communication, communication!

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There is a tipping point where time wasted in the communication processes between collaborating engineering teams results in unacceptably low overall organisational productivity.

In small, two-pizza technology product companies like Unifize, engineering teams can be small and in the same room, communicating quickly.  They can call themselves ‘agile’ and be highly responsive to changing requirements and uncertainties in the engineering process.

As the businesses and teams get bigger, the need for larger, specialised teams in multiple locations increases.  This inevitably creates more communication waste, making it more difficult to collaborate.  

These challenges get bigger as the complexity of the products and the corresponding team sizes required to engineer and deliver them also increases.

Enter the project managers, whose entire function is to provide the collaborative glue that holds these disparate organisational objectives together.  

However, project managers don’t eliminate communication waste, they manage it.  What if something could actually eliminate it?

“… I have seen and heard many different types of waste within manufacturing and engineering systems. But, in my opinion it all boils down to communication, communication, communication!”

– Mastering Lean Product Development – Shawn Klinge – Lean Sensei

The root causes

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As we progressed through our problem discovery process at Unifize, we spent considerable time trying to build our own thesis into the root causes of communication failures, only to discover subsequently a whole host of academic work in the public domain on the subject.  Software engineers have shamelessly hijacked the search terms ‘lean’ and ‘product development’.

In their paper entitled Communication Process in a Lean Concept, Daniela Gîfu and Mirela Teodorescu describe the “waste drivers” (root causes) of information quality (communication) as:

“People waiting for data, information (timeliness); information waiting for people (timeliness); lack of direct access (accessibility); information hunting (accessibility); unnecessary detail and accuracy (accuracy); Critical path related queues (timeliness); Large batch size (amount, specifically: volume); over-dissemination of information (relevancy); erroneous data and information (correctness); poor knowledge re-use (accessibility); unclear goals and objectives (deficiency in contextual information quality, leading to poor relevancy); insufficient readiness to cooperate (availability, accessibility); Poor compatibility of IT resources (accessibility).”

So, to summarise, the root causes of communication waste are information:

  • Timeliness
  • Accessibility
  • Accuracy
  • Amount, volume
  • Relevancy
  • Correctness
  • Context
  • Availability

Ultimately, in our own thesis, we concluded that this all contributed to disconnected or slow feedback loops, which slowed down or prevented a given organisation from taking the necessary decisions and actions required to achieve its goals.

If more than 70% of the time in a given engineering processes was wasted as per the definitions above, we should be able to reduce the cycle times of each process by first identifying this waste and then taking action to eliminate it.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy

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So, if we’ve identified all this waste, shouldn’t it be easy to eliminate it?  

Well, actually, no it isn’t, especially if you’re using traditional project management and communication tools like email and P2P chat applications (eg Whatsapp, iMessage, WeChat etc), or even enterprise chat applications (eg Slack, Hike, Flock etc)

For instance, how is an engineering team going to determine how long they were “waiting for data and information” on a set of projects?  How are they going to figure out how much time they lost because of “poor knowledge re-use” or “information hunting”?  How are they going to identify their “deficiency in contextual information quality, leading to poor relevancy”?

Above all, even if you have a system that helps you identify all these problems, what are you going to do eliminate them?

However, while these are valid questions, we first needed to understand what a communication solution might ultimately do for manufacturing and engineering businesses…

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