2. Modular architecture. By breaking a product concept into modules, companies can give sub-teams the responsibility to work out the best set of solutions for the final design and manufacturing of their part of the project, including interfaces, materials, or potential trouble spots. Armed with this input, design teams reunite the modules to set the plans for the next iteration of the product. It is critical to designate a creative manager to orchestrate this part of the process, and ensure that all contingencies are being discussed and that the activity doesn’t devolve into a wasteful and inefficient exercise. The most innovative companies, such as Apple and Google, assign this role to their most talented product managers and systems experts. The auto industry has made good use of modular architecture, allowing carmakers to refresh model lines and introduce new versions of their vehicles while reusing multiple parts, designs, and components from prior iterations. Conducting an “architecture” session to evaluate the modularity shortcomings of current product offerings and generate ways to improve product modularity and flexibility is a must.
3. Early risk identification. As cross-functional teams rapidly iterate and synthesize product ideas and concepts, more often than not the deep dive into the design process reveals potential development risks. With this knowledge, teams can prioritize potential risks and incorporate risk reduction plans — such as focused lead-customer research and early engineering assessments — into the development slate, while scheduling routine test events to verify that risks have been addressed. A major medical device company handled this approach particularly well recently by mandating that all development plans and contingency tests include rigorous risk management controls, rather than placing risk management activities on a schedule separate from product development. Using this program, the company reduced problems in post-launch product quality and performance by more than 80 percent.
4. Intensive stakeholder and supplier involvement. Traditionally, companies hold suppliers and the manufacturing function at arm’s length until product requirements and concepts have matured. By contrast, the agile front-end approach seeks to gain the input of all stakeholders — customers, partners, suppliers, and sales and manufacturing teams — to critique designs, offer insights, and broadly minimize risk and maximize efficiency up front so that fewer changes need to be made during production or product launch. The best way to do this is to appoint someone on each project team to be a supplier integrator. This person brings suppliers into the development process at critical points while working to understand supplier perspectives and capabilities, thereby enhancing the likelihood that suppliers will meet cost, quality, and scheduling expectations.
Because mature product definition and risk management take place early in the process, the application of lean techniques to the back end minimizes the wasted effort and resources typically expended on product launches. This later stage also has four key characteristics.
1. Reusable platforms and modules. Using the lean approach gives teams the luxury of setting up a development plan that mitigates the need to redesign large parts of the product from scratch in every cycle and iteration. Some product features are designated as necessary but not highly valued by customers; these are then treated as common modules that can be reused over multiple product generations. This approach gives agile development teams the chance to apply most of their resources toward “intelligent customization” of product iterations, adding only those new features and capabilities that customers value most. This not only saves development effort and time, but also increases speed-to-market. Many leading companies maximize reuse by developing common features, parts, and specifications libraries that are centerpieces of new developer training. In some cases, the libraries are automated and fully integrated into product management systems and IT tools.