Prabhjit Singh looks into the types of methodologies and evaluates how OEMs can choose the best for them through careful consideration of their environment and market
It seems nowadays that there is a rule, methodology and philosophy for everything. Many of these rules have been around for decades so it raises the obvious question, 'are the old methods still relevant in an age of rapid innovation and uncertainty?' This is especially pertinent for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) where even a small advantage can mean the difference between success and failure.
Developing a new product is not easy. The process of consultation, design, production, testing, logistics, integration and support can be challenging for even the best OEMs. This is made even more difficult in highly regulated industries such as the medical, security and defence markets. Here, products must not only meet stringent regulations, but also perform in extreme environments, where resistance to temperature fluctuations, humidity and vibration shock is critical.
When asked how he developed new products, the late CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, famously quipped that, "it's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times people don't know what they want until you show it to them." This very disruptive approach evidently worked for Apple and means that the company continues to produce some of the most desirable consumer products on the market.
So how does one go about choosing a methodology that offers the best of both worlds, a philosophy that is quick to adapt to change and yet is thorough enough to cater for quality control and planning? First we need to see what's available.
Project management methodologies can be broadly categorised into two areas, the first group are the traditional formal methods. The main systems include Prince2, Six Sigma, PMBOK (Product Management Body of Knowledge), TQM (Total Quality Management), QFD (Quality Function Deployment) and the Waterfall model. The second group has emerged from this and is known as lean. This includes lean, agile, JIT (Just in Time), TPS (Toyota Production System) and Kanban among others.
To sum up, the formal methodologies all prescribe a holistic, start-to-finish, approach to process driven environments where quality of output must be maintained while reducing the variability of each output. Whether its business or manufacturing, formal methods are all about measurable, quantifiable, result oriented outcomes. This includes cost reduction, optimised time management and a deep understanding of inherent risks and benefits of each action.
While the formal methods are great for large scale, often multinational, projects, they can be difficult to administer. They are usually resource intensive, inflexible and bureaucratic in nature, making them difficult to roll out in smaller projects.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the lean methodologies. Popularised by Japanese automotive manufacturers, lean, agile and just-in-time (JIT) systems are all about reducing a process down to its absolute core activities, improving efficiency and reducing wasted resources in the process. Ultimately, lean systems add value by reducing costs and improving delivery times, while maintaining quality.
However, it's not all plain sailing. One of the biggest criticisms of the lean methods is that the focus on optimising a single activity can often lead to OEMs losing sight of the bigger picture. This scope-creep can mean projects lose direction strategically. As well as this, inaccuracies in lean processes can quickly become magnified across the project and if not managed carefully, a lack of documentation can lead to traceability problems when things go wrong.
Choose your poison
So which is best? Well, in order to establish that, you need to consider three issues; external environment, internal setup and ability to adapt. Take Accutronics, for example. If you look at our external environment, you can see that we operate in many highly regulated, life-critical and extreme environments, designing and manufacturing batteries and chargers for medical and healthcare through to security and defence. For us it's important that we can demonstrate traceability, documentation and thoroughly tested products. At the same time we can only hope to achieve a competitive advantage if we understand the subtle and nuanced demands of our customers.
In the second and third stages, OEMs must ensure that physical resources, infrastructure and human expertise are leveraged in such a way that they can adapt to market changes quickly and smoothly. Whether it's a change in legislation, a new innovation in materials research or technological obsolescence, you must either adapt or die.
Knowing and abiding by the rules is one thing, mastering them and using them for competitive advantage, is a whole new ball game. With a willingness to invest time and expertise, OEMs can hope to continuously build successful products and services time and time again.
Prabhjit Singh, production manager at Accutronics.