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Coach's Corner: Understanding the Value of a Concept Paper

4/1/2021

I have read about the Concept Paper done by Chief Engineers at Toyota but have never seen one. It sounds a lot like the Marketing Requirement Document we use. How is it different?

Thank you for your question. I wish I could share a Concept Paper with you, but, frankly, I am not sure that doing so, by itself, would be particularly helpful in answering your question. So, let me do the best I can to explain.

For those who are not familiar with the Concept Paper: it is the guiding document the Chief Engineer at Toyota uses to define the product scope and project goals. It is a brief document that describes:

· customer/market needs,

· competitive analyses,

· product targets,

· timeline,

· expected financial outcomes.

Ultimately, the Concept Paper strives to clarify what is value-added in the eyes of the customer and what is important for the business.

Most of the information listed above are items most project teams consider today. However, in most circumstances, each part is led by a different group at different times during the project, leading to misunderstandings that cause extra work and frustration. In this situation, everyone in the organization is looking at the product through their specific lens, so nobody is necessarily “right or wrong” in their viewpoint, making it difficult for the design team to make final decisions.

The difference with -- and the value of -- the Concept Paper is more about the process used to align the message and obtain buy-in from all internal stakeholders.

The Concept Paper is not a one-and-done, fill-in-the-blanks document. It evolves over the study, or concept, phase of a project. The first version kicks off the study phase by providing guidance to the team on what the product must be and what it is not to be! This first version is based on a lot of going to the gemba to understand what customers need and value. At this stage, the Concept Paper is used to challenge and motivate the organization to create new value for its customers while providing guardrails that prevent teams from looking for solutions that may not address the customers’ and organization’s core needs.

Throughout the study phase, the Concept Paper prompts the team members to ask questions and challenge their assumptions about their customers’ needs and what they truly value. The team continues to gain a deeper understanding about their customers by clarifying the inherent paradoxes in their stated and observed needs. They are also exploring alternatives to close knowledge gaps so they can ultimately deliver that value. Invariably, conflicts will arise between needs, wants, and capabilities. The Concept Paper makes those questions and conflicts visible and helps constructively focus the team toward understanding and addressing the critical tradeoffs that they, inevitably, must make to design a great and profitable product!

As they are working through these tradeoffs, the project team engages key stakeholders for their input to clarify and align internal goals with the external customers’ needs.

At the end of the study phase, the Concept Paper is frozen along with the product concept. At this point, it becomes a contract between the team and the organization. The team is committing to deliver the value within the scope defined in the Concept Paper, and the organization is committing to provide the needed support.

As the project team enters the execution phase, the Concept Paper keeps team members centered on their mission. It also effectively helps to enroll all the organization’s stakeholders provide their input and resources to help the project team successfully deliver the stated value to the customer and a profitable value stream to the organization.

Think of a concept paper as the outline of a story you are trying to write. A good story starts with a solid outline. Without one, your story will not come together cohesively, and no one will understand or want to buy it!

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