Late and over budget

We all know that the majority of product design and development projects are late to market and over budget. What’s worrying is that it has become increasingly common to hear Engineering/Project managers reference the “get it right first time” ethos that they want all their engineers and design teams to follow.

The Idea of the right first time approach seems sensible. Do all the work, be confident in the outcome, and get a colleague to check your work, catching any mistakes. How hard can it be?

One undesired outcome of this approach is to push teams down the road of developing the least risky solutions. Innovative ideas, by their nature are new and usually come with a long list of unknowns. However, uncertainty (until tested and understood) often leads to failure.


The NPD Process

Linear new product development (NPD) processes, where you cannot move forward until all tasks in that stage are signed off, are common place in mature companies. At each stage, the development costs increase, usually by an order of magnitude. Testing usually happens at a later stage of the process. At this point failures are expensive, as modification to tooling or complete redesign of components could be the only remedy.

Unfortunately, test failures are seen as failures full stop. This is especially true for business teams outside of the technical & engineering departments. Perhaps the sales and marketing teams have been promising their customers new products, and a late test failure could delay the launch. This could likely lead to sales managers having to declare the delay to their customers. Internal fractures within the organisation are prone to develop if this happens regularly.

Such a linear NPD process flow can cause project overruns because test feedback is delayed, teams cling to bad ideas longer than they should, and problems aren’t unearthed until it’s expensive to solve them.


Fail Fast

A better strategy is the “getting it wrong the first time”, or more commonly referred to as “failing fast”. This is where design teams iterate rapidly and frequently and learn quickly from their failures. Advances in simulation and rapid-prototyping technologies have made operating in this fashion vastly easier and less expensive.


Explained in Harvard Business review article – Six myths of product development:

First published in 2012

“Teams that followed an iterative approach and conducted early and frequent tests make more errors along the way. But because they used low-cost prototyping technologies, they outperformed (in terms of the time and effort required) teams that tried to get their design right the first time. The teams that faced high prototyping costs invested more effort on specification, development, and verification. And because they did their iterations later in the process—and did far fewer of them—they delayed the discovery of critical problems.

Experimenting with many diverse ideas is crucial to innovation projects. When people experiment rapidly and frequently, many novel concepts will fail, of course. But such early failures can be desirable because they allow teams to eliminate poor options quickly and focus on more-promising alternatives. A crash test that shows that a car design is unsafe, a drug candidate that proves to be toxic, or a software user interface that confuses customers can all be desirable outcomes—provided that they occur early in a process, when few resources have been committed, designs are still very flexible, and other solutions can be tried.”


Failing has a bad reputation

If you look at start-up businesses, they often lack NPD processes, due to their immaturity. But what they lack in development structure, they often make up for in innovation. As they mature, they are keen to leave the sometimes chaotic ways of developing in the past and opt for an NDP process. A balance between a strict linear process and a flexible iterative one will likely give positive results. This means excepting failure.

People are sensitive to the word failure because of the negative connotations. We are all worried about how others will judge us. Managers and business leaders need to understand that failing is learning. And from these lessons knowledge is gained.


The results

Faster design cycles, quicker and cheaper projects, with innovative products.

The best way to fail fast within product design, is to utilise simulation software and to prototype your designs and test early. Analyse the test results, make improvements where necessary or bin that concept and quickly move on to the next idea. Repeat this process rapidly, and success will be in sight!


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