5 Ways Lean Product Development Drives Manufacturing Improvement

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By Bob Wray, Project Manager, Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech

Through systematic improvement of processes, manufacturers can reduce waste, increase productivity, and lessen inventory to save money and increase their bottom line.

The same lean principles that have been proven in manufacturing are now being applied effectively upstream to the product development process. By “leaning out” product development, companies can reduce development costs, introduce new or improved products more rapidly, and boost top-line growth.

Additionally, Lean Product Development (LPD) provides a structure to consider design and manufacturing together from the early stages of a project. Utilizing this approach allows your design and manufacturing staff to collaborate in creating value through product and process enhancements. If properly facilitated, exploration of alternative designs and manufacturing methods can easily become an integral part of your process. Here are five key LPD principles that will directly support your lean manufacturing efforts:

1 – Cross-Functional Teams

A key element of LPD is using a cross-functional team for project management. You should identify and assign resource requirements to the team on a full- or part-time basis. It is important for this team to function semi-autonomously and establish its own identity. While your team will address interdepartmental issues on many fronts, design and manufacturing are the top priorities. In competitive markets, maintaining a high-value product portfolio not only means bringing innovative products to market, but also having high-quality, cost-effective manufacturing processes in place. The cross-functional team can provide the process necessary to create this synergy within your organization.

2 – Early Consideration of Manufacturing

It is common practice to conduct a manufacturing review at the end of the product design phase. At this point, most companies do not take the time to consider meaningful process alternatives, as doing so could delay product launch. The result is often a reactionary process with compromised design features and sub-optimal processes. However, by using LPD tools, manufacturability can be considered very early while design is still in the concept phase. A preliminary manufacturing plan is created and modified as improved methods are considered, proven, and implemented. By designing the product and process together, your company can identify and address opportunities to enhance quality and streamline manufacturing throughput.

3 – Design for Lean Manufacturing

Even in companies with mature lean manufacturing programs, designers often lack understanding of lean philosophies. Through early involvement, your manufacturing personnel can influence design to support lean efforts within the factory. Over time, your designers will understand and appreciate lean manufacturing and its application in your facility. This will enable them to work more efficiently with manufacturing, bring ideas to the table, and intensify efforts to eliminate waste and drive down cost.

4 – Visual Communication Tools

Visual tools are an integral part of the lean factory, so LPD has also adopted numerous visual tools to enhance project communication. Using visual “project boards” you can track progress and highlight issues so the team can quickly redirect activities if necessary to maintain project goals and objectives. By doing so, your team will identify problems early and utilize team resources to get things back on track. Implementation of these visual tools will allow staff members who are not part of the design process to participate immediately in the development process.

5 – Stand-Up Meetings

Team communication meetings should happen often, but be very short in duration, typically 10 to 20 minutes. A standing room environment during these meetings will help encourage a fast tempo, productive meeting.  Using visual project boards, presenters can quickly give status updates and highlight any problem areas. Once the issue(s) and related action(s) are captured, the meeting should move to a close. By keeping on point and resolving the issues outside of the communication meeting, resources, including staff time, will be effectively used. While these issues are being resolved, continue to provide updates to the entire team to keep everyone engaged and up-to-date. These streamlined communication meetings are important for cross-functional team involvement.

It is important to note that LPD tools can be implemented in a phased approach. It is not necessary to turn the entire product development process upside down. Pick one tool that will improve your overall process and try it out on a single project before adopting it. As the organizational benefits of LPD are experienced, momentum will build throughout the organization, and the culture will be slowly transformed.

This is part of a series of articles for manufacturing improvement. Download a pdf of 5 Ways Lean Product Development Drives Manufacturing Improvement.