Find creative ways to build learning and current knowledge right in the work engineers do, or they’ll waste significant time and money reinventing the wheel when developing new products and services, notes Jim Morgan, PhD, a product development executive, author, and world-renowned thought leader on lean product and process development (LPPD). Currently the senior advisor for LPPD at the nonprofit Lean Enterprise Institute, Morgan offered his latest insights to engineers at a large manufacturing company during a Q&A after a recent presentation on using LPPD to leverage disruptions caused by new technologies and ideas. Here are highlights from the Q&A, edited for clarity and length.
Q: In engineering, we have design guides, practices, standing instructions, and record books, but sometimes it still feels like I’m reinventing the wheel. You said there is no silver bullet but what recommendations do you have to try to build in learning and knowledge reuse?
Jim: One of the initiatives I recall from my early days was something we called smart CAD [computer-aided design]. We actually built design rules into the CAD system so if engineers violated rules, like depth-to-width ratios for formability, they would get a warning notice right in the CAD system. We embedded what we understood about the physics of a problem right into the system.
We also created development plans based on specific parts. They were in Excel spreadsheets with requirements for developing, let’s say, a fender built right into them. You clicked on a link to get critical information at certain points in development but only the knowledge that was critical at that point in time would be available by clicking.
We learned that creating massive books of knowledge or huge lists weren’t very effective with engineers. In fact, one of my managers came up to me and said, “You know, if I wanted to read this much, Jim, I would have gone to liberal arts instead of engineering.” We had to find ways to be creative about how we embedded and updated knowledge to make it easy to use.
One of my managers came up to me and said, “If I wanted to read this much, Jim, I would have gone to liberal arts instead of engineering.” We had to find ways about how we updated knowledge to make it easy to use.
My fundamental approach was that we needed to make it easier to do something the right way than to do it the wrong way. If people weren’t utilizing these tools, we didn’t start with the assumption that there was an issue with people. We started with the assumption that there’s something wrong with the way we’re applying this knowledge. And so, we would try a different experiment.
One of the things I learned later in my career, especially at Rivian, was don’t be afraid to burn it down. I think another term for it is “pivot;” use whatever word you want. But try a different experiment when the evidence is telling you an experiment isn’t working.
Q: The auto industry is experiencing a lot of disruptive technological trends. But what about disruption from regulations? Sometimes companies try to prevent such laws from being enacted and sometimes the efforts work. So, the question is, when does a company accept such disruption versus fighting back against regulations?
Jim: That’s the first time I’ve gotten that question. In my career, I have not been so involved with the fighting-back part. But as a former director of Global Engineering at Ford, I dealt with safety regulations all over the world. They weren’t the same. They weren’t consistent. And oftentimes they conflicted. What was required in Europe, North America, and Asia were often very different things. It was a huge challenge for the engineering team to design effectively and meet those regulations worldwide on a global vehicle without making it massively heavy or massively expensive.
That’s where the idea of fixed and flexible comes in to design. I don’t like the term modularity too much. I think more in terms of architecture; how to leverage your standard architecture to have the flexibility to meet those regulatory requirements wherever you plan on selling that product.
Fighting back is not an area where I have a lot of experience. But where I would spend my energy if it were up to me is on two things. First, have regulations that make sense; that motivate the right behaviors whether it’s regarding sustainability or safety or whatever. The second thing is to drive a standard approach in the various regions. Is there some way to bring the leadership together to come up with a common approach?
Q: Can you recommend some ideas on how to get started with set-based design?
Jim: Another really good question. And as you might imagine in body engineering because the tooling is so expensive, it’s very difficult to build multiple fenders or multiple doors, but I did want to make sure that the thinking process, the way the engineers went about their work, made sure that they looked broadly before they started to focus in on a solution. And so, we asked engineers to do multiple proposals. I think it was four or five and then evaluate those design proposals based on matrices of cost, weight, manufacturability, whatever it might be. We started requiring engineers to create these matrices and then reviewed them at design reviews.
I wanted to build my team’s capability so I really wanted to understand how they were thinking about problems. One of the ways to do this was to talk about these matrices. At the design reviews, we had manufacturing, safety, and quality there, so we could take everybody’s view into consideration, not just engineering.
In my role, I couldn’t go through all the matrices, but I went through the major ones, and that helped the chiefs, their managers, and their supervisors to understand what it is we were trying to accomplish and its set this way of thinking into the process. But we also had to allow them time to do this. So, if you want to use a set-based approach upfront, but you don’t give your engineers any time to explore alternatives, it’s going to create some conflict and difficulty. My argument is that by taking a little bit more time upfront, you make the rest of the process so much more efficient and that it’s worth it.
Q: You said that putting people first was really the part that weaves together the six LPPD principles. What have you found today with the fact that so many people in teams are now working virtually? How do you continue to put people first?
Jim: That’s a huge challenge. The pandemic hit during my last three or four months at [electric adventure vehicle startup] Rivian, so my experience is limited. But I found that for my existing operations leadership team the transition was fairly seamless because people had been working together for the previous eight or nine months. We had gotten into a routine. We had gotten our cadence in place. People understood expectations. We had built a good relationship, a strong relationship. And so transferring that to the virtual world, transferring that to Zoom was not so difficult. I will not use the word easy, but it was not so difficult.
The biggest challenge was that we were hiring at a really rapid rate. We’re trying to bring our teams up to speed and trying to manage a lot of stuff. And the big challenge came in bringing new people on board, both in terms of getting to know them, understanding them as people, and for them to understand our expectations and how we work as a team. I think that was really limited by having to do everything virtually, and I think a lot longer than it would have taken if we could do it face-to-face.
That’s one of the themes that the LPPD group has been experimenting with. We’re working to better understand a hybrid working environment. So there’s, there’s still a lot left to be figured, but it doesn’t change the leadership priority in terms of behaviors such as respecting, including, and, informing the entire team.
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