Plan all you want, but just-do-it approach is best

ON EXCELLENCE

June 20, 1994|By TOM PETERS

No issue is more important to corporations today than innovation. And the key to innovation just might be burning your planning manual . . . and getting started.

That's what innovation guru Michael Schrage says in a brilliant article in Design Management Journal (Winter 1993), "The Culture(s) of Prototyping." "Effective prototyping," he declares, "may be the most valuable 'core competence' an innovative organization can hope to have."

Schrage observes that there are "spec-driven organizations" and "prototype-driven organizations." The former think a lot, write TC lot of stuff down, and then eventually do something (elaborate). The latter do it, then think about it (once they have something concrete to think about).

Prototype mavens include 3M, perhaps the world's top big-firm innovator, which Schrage describes as a "relentless prototyper." And Sony, where design exec Nobuyuki Idei claims the average time between product concept and rough working prototype is a shockingly brief one week.

"Prototypes are a way of life" in the most innovative firms, and "an iterative culture" defines the organization, according to premier industrial designer David Kelley of IDEO. Schrage adds that in such outfits, prototypes become "the essential medium for information [transmission], interaction, integration and collaboration."

At its roots, the cultural gulf between the quick prototypers and the rest is profound. "The idea that you can 'play' your way to a new product," Carnegie-Mellon's Dan Droz told Schrage, "is anathema to managers educated to believe that predictability and control are essential."

I agree with Schrage's conclusion ("strong prototyping cultures produce strong products"), but the case he makes is anecdotal. Enter Behnam Tabrizi and Kathleen Eisenhardt of Stanford University's Department of Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management.

Recently the duo turned their keen researchers' eyes to overall speed of product development, examining 72 projects from 36 companies in Asia, Europe and the United States. They unearthed two primary and fundamentally different approaches to hastening product development. In the first, the "compression strategy," the key to fast pace "is squeezing together a rationalized product development process," the authors write. "The underlying assumption is that since product development is complex, it is best to plan ahead to streamline the process and then compress the remaining steps together."

Alternatively, for the "experiential strategy" moving faster "simply by accelerating an existing [albeit streamlined] process . . . is insufficient. Rather, the underlying assumption is that product development is a highly uncertain path through foggy and shifting markets and technologies. Thus the key . . . is rapidly building intuition and flexible options."

The authors offer and then test 10 hypotheses. Six underpin the compression strategy. The first is, "More time spent in planning is associated with faster product development time." The other five predict that speed will flow from: greater supplier involvement; more designers using computer-aided design tools; overlapping steps (e.g., concurrent engineering and production); multifunctional teams; and rewarding teams for meeting schedule.

The seventh through 10th hypotheses assess the experiential strategy, for example, No. 7: "More design iterations are associated with faster development time." The remainder predict that development time will be cut by performing more intermediate tests, decreasing the time between milestones and relying on a high-ranking leader to focus the team's efforts.

Working with corporate product developers, the researchers developed precise measures for each hypothesis. Their findings: The compression strategy was trounced by the just-do-it approach.

More specifically, planning actually slowed the overall process; more CAD use also gummed up the works. Overlapping steps, greater supplier involvement and rewards for making schedule made little difference one way or the other. Among the compression-strategy variables, only the use of cross-functional teams significantly speeded things up.

Of the experiential variables, more iterations, more tests and more frequent milestones all shortened product development time significantly. A strong leader was a matter of indifference.

One must be leery of measuring too precisely such an inherently messy phenomenon. Nonetheless, Tabrizi and Eisenhardt's pioneering work provides a careful, systematic test of the intuitively plausible -- and monumentally important -- ideas presented by the likes of Michael Schrage.

Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801; (407) 420-6200.

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