Quick Product Development: Beyond Pop Formulas

Tom Peters

Ingersoll-Rand’s new Cyclone Grinder (an air-powered hand tool forremoving burrs from aircraft-engine turbine blades and the like) is a user’s delight. Sales, 18 months after product release, have increased by about 65 percent over the old version.

In 1987, IR’s product ranked third in its category and had been redesigned, unimaginatively, four times in a dozen years. Power Tool Division Marketing and Sales VP Dick Poore declared that the time had come to get bold.

Project boss Jim Stryker spelled out some of the new departures: Manufacturing and engineering would work together—”simultaneously”—from the start. Customers would be partners in the process. And product-development cycle time would be slashed from the conventional three or four years to one.

I have long championed the simultaneous product-development approach, popularized by Ford with its development of the Taurus in the early ’80s. However, a review of IR’s adventure revealed how much goes into turning cliches (“get everyone in on the deal from the start”) into successful reality.

1. Put together key function representatives, in one location, full time from the outset. This is the cornerstone. At IR, people from engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, sales, and marketing were charter team members.

2. Start with customer visits, and keep making customer visits. The IR team, called Project Lightening, let customers shape the project goal. They continued to adjust designs, according to customer feedback, at every step along the way.

3. Get to the right customer. Lots of effort went into recruiting four top IR distributors as team members (previously, dealer involvement had been given lip service). Furthermore, at customer locations the IR team didn’t stop with the purchasing agent or shop foreman as in the past, but forged through to the end user: Most breakthroughs came from this insistence.

4. Begin with goals, not details. The team—including outsiders—spent lots of time working on overall product goals, taking care not to jump too quickly to the precise specifications for the new tool’s innards, as they would have done before.

5. Imbue urgency and patience into the process. One of Stryker’s most delicate moves was keeping toes to the fire (one year or bust) while simultaneously counseling patience (e.g., not skipping too quickly to details).

6. Use outsiders as spurs. Industrial designers normally had been summoned by IR late in the game, to “round off the rough corners.” This time, these outsiders led the way, focusing everyone on the end user’s perspective—and performing in days what ordinarily took months (creating 20 dramatic conceptual designs). Side benefit: Tradition-clad IR team members were pressed to keep pace.

7. Make vendors full-scale partners. Vendor-IR dynamics broke dramatically with the past—e.g., unrelenting contact from the start, vendor involvement in basic design.

8. Get/keep the plant involved. “New look” product-development teams often perform an initial miracle, then blow it when they must pass their efforts back to plant personnel for final implementation. But from the beginning, the Project Lightening team worked with members of its extended family at the Athens, Penn. plant. In the end, most of the significant breakthroughs in the new product’s guts turned out to be old ideas from previously ignored front-line workers.

9. Don’t forget barbecues. Early on, Stryker invited the team, largely consisting of plant employees from Athens who had never traveled on company business before, to his Clifton home (IR is headquartered in NJ) for a barbecue that kicked off a goal-setting session. Similar precedent-shattering social activities—several involving the plant workers at crucial junctures when morale was sagging—were important to success.

10. Master project psychology. Stryker’s most deft moves were least visible. At one point, he decided not to decide between two design options. Traditionally, marketing would have “made the call”; but the delay (and willingness to proceed down two tracks at once, when the team and distributors were not ready to commit to one or the other) proved essential. He also kept top management from parachuting in at troublesome moments, which would have gutted team product and process “ownership.”

11. Get lucky. When an untested material was being considered for the outer casing of the tool, team members went beyond engineering conventions and invented the “drag test” to convince risk-averse senior management of the material’s value. They dragged samples of new and traditional materials behind a member’s car, round and round in the motel parking lot where the team was staying—until stopped by irate guests. Such oft-talked about, propitious “events” became part of the team’s character, which helped it withstand setbacks along the tortuous path to success.

This list barely scratches the surface. The “orchestration variables”—such as barbecues, drag tests, pressure to hustle exerted by outside partners, holding top management at bay—are as important as the basic idea of getting key functions together from the start. Furthermore, we can define these “soft” imperatives, beyond lumping them together under some meaningless sobriquet like “inspired leadership” and then hoping for the best. Translating the invaluable “simultaneous” notion into timely results involves much more than first meets the eye.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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