Process or People

In much of manufacturing today, hitting a market window with product development is a critical factor for success. Development processes are different from production process due to their uncertainty and intangibles. My colleagues in the high technology industry spend millions of dollars organizing around Agile product development, buying software productivity tools, and acquiring the latest test technologies. Indeed, mastery of these tools and processes are critical to success in their industry. Too often however, organizations deploy these tools and fail to realize the improvement in cycle time expected. My experience over the years is that the people deploying the process are more important than the process itself.

People are a complex mixture of knowledge, skills, and attitudes. If these elements are not as finely tuned and maintained as the process, performance will not improve and perhaps even deteriorate. Attitudes are the pattern of beliefs people bring to the organization and will flavor the quality of communication, trust, and motivation to succeed. Organizations I have viewed as leaders in with development cycle time have engaged, confident employees with a desire to win and produce solutions quickly. Here are some considerations for product development cycle time:

Skimping on training: How many times have you seen an organization scrape together the capital dollars to buy a new tool, but inadequately budget the training required to acquire skill with the tool? It’s tempting to believe in technical organizations that use of these tools should be intuitive and that their people are “smart enough to figure it out.” Underestimating this need can sink programs.

Inability to anticipate: Product development organizations are usually populated with analytical styles that use the past to predict the future. Management teams benefit from developing engineers to extend their planning horizon to at least a couple months and develop a practice of identifying risk and contingencies.

Inadequate communication across departments: A vital role of management is properly dealing with this issue. Lack of shared priorities and inadequate sharing of technical details will add weeks to a product development. In this computer age, many are guilty of posting information in a data base or on a message board and, without following up, thinking they’ve covered the issue. There is still enormous benefit in having people with shared responsibilities actually talk to each other.

Missing skills in key positions:  Placement of the correct skills in each position requires an adept management team. Recruiting, setting goals aligned with standards of performance and available resource, and project management all impact forming the right team. Realistic assessment of talent and projects followed by action is vital to cycle time improvement. This is an extremely difficult function and I do not believe perfection is necessary. Management teams that demonstrate commitment to pulling together the right team will usually win employee engagement. Engagement can overcome a lot.

Leading with values: Hewlett-Packard and Google are two companies celebrated for creating cultures that value employees and innovation. Leaders that project a winning attitude and demonstrate the principles they value will engage employees. Engaged employees are more confident and committed to helping their company win. This energy can dramatically improve your time to develop. 

Why Strategic Goals Are Not Achieved

It’s the start of a new year with new budgets and plans; and the air filled with a renewed sense of opportunity. All too often, organizations fall short on the previous year’s planned initiatives and skip into the new year without reflecting on what happened. Shortcomings can be caused by events out of one’s control. There are common management errors, however, that cause plans to fall short. What follows are a few of my favorites:

  • Strategic goals were not expanded into SMART task lists with a name assigned to each task. The acronym SMART stands for Specific, Measureable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. It should never be assumed that individuals will assume responsibility for a task without being asked. Also, the expectations for each task need to be “crystal-clear.” Management needs to pay particular attention to the Attainable element. Setting too many goals for the resource available guarantees some objectives will not be met.
  • Initiatives are not properly prioritized throughout the organization. Strategic initiatives often compete for the same resource that is responsible for turning revenue each month. My experience is that strategic is always trumped by the pragmatic. It is also important that personal and department incentives are compatible with achieving the strategic goal.
  • Inadequate management review of strategic goals. Reviews can uncover a number of issues before they derail the plan. It is important to assure that communication across departments is providing compatible priorities and smooth handoff of input for the next task. Sometimes organizations will discover through implementation of the task list that the perceived opportunity of the goal is not what was previously envisioned and communicated to stakeholders. It is important that management identify the contingency plan on a timely basis to preserve the credibility of the planning process.
  • Management insensitivity to change. Critical goals usually introduce significant change to an organization. It is vital that the goal be sold to every level of the organization and that objections be properly listened to. Employee engagement is an invaluable means to improving and accelerating achievement of the goal.