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Jeff Liker

Jeff Liker: Lean engineering tools can be lifeless or brought to life with exceptional leadership and teamwork

By Jeff Liker, - Last updated: Saturday, March 16, 2013 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

With my associates at Liker Lean Advisors we have been working with product development organizations for the last ten years ranging from $1 billion businesses to Fortune 50 businesses.   As in all of my published work we believe in an organic approach, rather then an mechanistic tool-based approach.   There are many tools that Jim Morgan and I talk about in The Toyota Product Development System, such as a chief engineer’s concept paper, value stream mapping, know-how databases, the big room (obeya) for project meetings, and the use of A3 reports.   These are all tools which can be lifeless or brought to life with exceptional leadership and teamwork.  Since product development is a mostly knowledge-based process (with some manufacturing like for prototyping) it cannot be physically transformed and the results cannot be seen.   They are mostly in people’s heads or in electronic form like CAD databases.  And the goal is explicitly innovation in the product, in integrating with the process, and in achieving challenging targets for cost, quality and delivery.   Innovation cannot be mandated and using tools does not create an innovative team.  So it is even more sensitive to leadership and culture then for a repetitive physical process.

We had a good deal of success with Solar Turbines in San Diego California that make complex gas-electric turbines.  They had a complex stage-gate process where they evaluated many items in a checklist at gates and the benefits were limited. They consistently missed almost all their targets.   We suggested, as we do in manufacturing, that they start with pilot projects.  They selected on upgrade to a full turbine and one design of a key component–an injector.  Both would be finished in relatively short duration (e.g., 8 month in one case and 1 1/2 years in the other).  We launched each project with value-stream mapping to provide a vision for the future project and at least as important to begin to build a cross-functional team.  We then set up an obeya where they met every week.  They developed innovative metrics that were meaningful and could be updated every week.  They found creative solutions to problems in the product and also to keep on track on their targets on the metrics.  Fortunately both teams largely stayed together for the lifetime of the projects.  Both projects came in at or better then all their targets and their was tremendous learning.   They then continued to refine the methods on additional projects.  After about 4 years lean PD was common in projects and they started to work on the infrastructure such as know-how databases and took on a brand new turbine from the advanced research stage.  They have worked on PD projects, prototyping processes, supplier integration, testing processes, and responses to problems in the field.  It took about five years to develop a critical mass of leaders who had the skills to use real PDCA problem solving and make this part of the culture.

This is a model we believe in–start with model projects that are cross-functional, have enough coaches to help these teams succeed, generate from these teams true believers who start to understand this is a new way of working and thinking, and then spread it as quickly or slowly as your resources, leadership, and culture allow.  Begin at the project level and expand to the infrastructure and organizational structure level.

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