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Perspectives of a Chief Engineer on Starting and Sustaining Lean Product and Process Development

by Chet Marchwinski & Steven Shoemaker
November 20, 2019

Perspectives of a Chief Engineer on Starting and Sustaining Lean Product and Process Development

by Chet Marchwinski & Steven Shoemaker
November 20, 2019 | Comments (0)

Steve Shoemaker, general manager at Caterpillar Inc., first applied lean product and process development (LPPD) practices as the chief engineer on a new platform of next-generation hydraulic excavators, overseeing the new product from concept to production. Based in Japan, he was responsible for the company’s Hydraulic Excavator Design Center as well as the global team, which also had offices in China, Germany, and the U.S. Steve is now applying what he learned in his role as head of engineering at Caterpillar’s Earth Moving Division.  

He shared his insights on applying LPPD principles, how to sustain them, and leading teams of engineers with LEI Communications Director Chet Marchwinski at the annual Designing the Future Summit.

Q: Why did Caterpillar adopt lean product and process development, and what were the benefits of LPPD to a global company like Caterpillar?

Steve: We started adopting lean principles in our factories probably 30 years ago. So, we've been employing those techniques, from a factory perspective, for some time.  In the mid-2000s, we were faced with some significant emission regulations that impacted all of our products. And that meant that we had to redesign all our equipment.

We had some massive changes to our exhaust systems that would help us comply with the new emission regulations. So, it really was a crisis from a product development perspective that drove us into lean product and process development. Across the whole enterprise, engine people and machine people came together for what we called blitzes to develop common solutions that we could apply to multiple machines.

That was where we really jumped into lean product and process development and it has been ongoing ever since. There's certainly been a lot of areas where we've fallen back but there are still pockets of excellence moving forward with the principles.

Q: I was going to ask after you started lean product and process development, how did you sustain and spread it? Any tips there?

Steve: You can't force it on folks, and it's always easier to fall back into old ways of doing things if people don't see the benefits immediately. We've got a small core group -- our lean office that's responsible for product development as well as lean applications. They're [available] on a pull basis. So the groups that want to do value-stream mapping, for example, or need assistance, pull on them on an as-needed basis. They come and move the team along and it's been quite effective that way.

Q: You were the chief engineer for the excavator portfolio from 2012-2017, and now you have chief engineers reporting to you. What's your advice to other executives who are leading teams of chief engineers?

Steve: At Caterpillar, the chief engineer really is the top technical person on a particular product. And, in the Earthmoving Division, we've got the paving products -- bulldozers, motor graders, medium wheel loaders, and a wheel loader business that we run out of China. Those machines are the heart of the Caterpillar business. It really grew the business up over the years. So, these chief engineers have been through a lot. And there's not a lot of lessons that a leader's going to come in and teach these folks about how to do product development, so there are a few things that I'd recommend.

One is to listen to them. They know their products, they know what needs to be done on a product, and they know when the new content of a program is too much or not enough. They know where they can push and where the risks are.

The second thing -- and it's something that I really work to do -- is I try to make their jobs easier; let them focus on bringing value to the factory and the products that we send to our customers. I try to get rid of all the other bureaucracy that gets in the way of them doing their jobs and letting them focus on that every day. One of the most important elements of that is growing new engineers; helping teach and develop our engineering base so that we've got people who can fill the shoes someday.

And then, finally, I'd say you have to appreciate them. They're the workhorses of the organization; they come to work every day and they do their jobs every day, day in and day out. And sometimes we forget to tell them how much they mean to the company. So, just showing your appreciation for how much value they add is really, I think, really an important key.

Q: That's great advice. Final question: You were based in Japan as head of the company's hydraulic excavator design center, a global team with offices in China, Germany, and the U.S. How do you introduce lean development concepts to such an international group? What are the special challenges of an executive leading a team like that?

Steve: During my time with the excavation division, it was a unique period. We hadn't developed a new platform for our excavators in over 25 years. And it was during my time there that we moved into a new product development program called Next Gen Excavator. And that afforded us the opportunity to employ modularity and commonality as we drove from multiple platforms to a single global platform. So, it really focused on simplifying our business. That really united the teams for a common goal, common purpose, a reason for what we were doing. And that helped us really focus on simplifying the business.

Keep Learning:

  • Get a copy of Designing the Future by lean management thought leaders Jim Morgan and Jeff Liker to learn how Caterpillar and companies in a variety of industries are leveraging the lean product and process development framework to create better products and services, and a better future for themselves, their customers, employees, and stakeholders.
  • Sign up for the Lean Product and Process Development eletter to get access to practical, real-world content at the LPPD website. Click the link, then scroll down to the orange “stay updated” banner. Subscriber information is never shared, sold, or swapped.
  • Attend the third annual Designing the Future Summit, June 18-19, 2020. Register 4 team members now and the 5th member attends FREE! Sign up here to catch the presentations and workshops by lean product development practitioners and to watch highlights from the 2019 conference.
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