Monday, September 21, 2015

Improving the Product Development Process

By Henry Ashton
Director, Product Development
Henkel Corporation

A question often asked is, “What is the correct way to do product development?” or “How should we set ourselves up to do it?” The answer is to be enabled by structure but more dependent on HOW all the stakeholders act. It is important that the stakeholders know and understand their role in the overall process and what is expected of them. 

Many companies set up departments called “product development” or “research and development.” In some respects this is unfortunate as it can tend to compartmentalize the product development process.

It’s All About the People

To succeed, product development must be a cross-functional activity that includes the active participation of all stakeholders* across all functions. The Technology, Marketing, Finance, Operations and Quality functions all have key roles to play in successful product development. Additionally, customers and end- users should be brought into this activity as early as possible in the development cycle.

In addition to being a cross functional activity, PD is also a team activity and process. Unity of purpose and alignment towards common goals are necessary for the team. All team members must feel the sense of responsibility that belonging to a team entails. This means that it can’t be a team just in name. Every team member has responsibilities to the team to provide on-time deliverables. Every team member has responsibilities to other members of the team, without exception. One cannot demand accountability from others without an acceptance of his or her own responsibilities to others. 

While there are tangibles in terms of deliverables we must also consider the manner in which teams go about their business. This is one of the intangibles that can influence the sense of belonging to the team and the individual and collective morale of the team. 
A factor that is often overlooked in the process is sincerity of intent to act as a true team player. One of the causes of delays is the belief on the part of some functions that they are the “masters” of the process and other functions are the “doers”. This causes alienation and is disruptive to team unity. Everyone deserves to understand the contribution of all the team members and how they fit. All team members own the development process.

Maintain Clarity of Objectives

Similar to other activities, PD succeeds when there are clear objectives, good organization and cohesive teamwork. However, there are some factors that are unique to successful PD. Maintaining forward momentum is key on projects. This goes hand-in-hand with effective time management. There is in reality a finite window of opportunity to develop and launch new products Successful teams manage the time available and maximize the number of development iterations within the time available. A project can fail in the time that it takes to be successful if time and effort are actively managed.  

Product Development is An Iterative Process

The reality is that product development is not achieved according to a successful pre-written recipe at the first attempt. It requires several iterations before a final prototype is arrived at. One way to speed up the iterative process is to involve both manufacturing and the end-users at the earliest possible stage in the development process. This approach also helps the team adjust to the dynamic of changing targets and gives the development team the best chance of staying ahead of the competition.

Along the development path there needs to be frequent re-calculation of the cost basis for the project.  This is a key element in the process of iteration.

Risk Management

Implicit in any iterative process is the fact that an impasse may be reached that renders the project unsustainable. Therefore the team has always got to be prepared to kill a project if the facts so dictate. Naturally, the earlier in the overall process the better. As the team proceeds through the various steps of the project a key goal is risk mitigation. Risk of failure has to diminish as the project progresses.  

Today, sustainability, supply chain and logistics have also to be considered. Built in to the process of iteration is the ongoing verification and validation of results and market fit as well as ongoing validation of required raw material supply chains and product distribution logistics.

Launch – Team Support is A Critical Success Factor 

Finally, support during the product launch is critical. The product launch is not a point in time but rather a period of time over which market feedback must be closely monitored and evaluated. Technical service is non-routine during this period. This is the time where the product developers, technologists and the manufacturing teams must be involved up-front and kept in the communication loops. It may be necessary to make process and product modifications based on marketplace feedback. This is the phase where secondary likes and dislikes (some might say intangibles) of the product come to light for the first time. Therefore engagement of the development team is critical during this phase. In effect the launch phase should end when the development team is in a position to leave the launch process and the sales and maintenance of the product can become more routine. 

A Salutary Exception

I am aware of one salutary exception. It was theorized that company X could make a product by piping a reagent (A) from a neighboring company site to react with an existing product (B) to afford product C. The chemistry was simple, well known and understood. No product development was done, no scale up parameters established. The first time the product C was made it was done on full production scale. A set of production conditions was established and the first production run produced the desired product.  Product C was on the market in less than one month. 

All went well for about a year, then the complaints started to come in about performance. Since it would have been too costly to troubleshoot on full production scale, the R&D group was asked to resolve the issues. The problem was they had no basis to start from on laboratory or pilot scale and had no idea how their work on lab scale would translate to the full production scale. There was little understanding or measurement of how the process was impacted by changing inputs or how robust the process was. The missing development work had to be started under the pressure of mounting complaints. 

The result was that after about three months a modified formulation was presented for scale up. It did not work as planned. Thus began a process of scale up work to translate the results from the lab scale to the full production scale. This lasted another two months. After this time a modified recipe was successfully scaled up. However, the damage to the company’s reputation was done. What could have been a high revenue product with high profit margins became instead a niche product with average profit margins. A key lesson, learned the hard way, was that product launches have to be carefully planned, managed and supported.             

*Stakeholder – defined simply as anyone who is influenced or affected by the progress and outcome of the development project.

Henry Ashton is North American Director of Product Development at Henkel Consumer Adhesives. He leads a team to develop new products for the professional home construction and retail DIY markets.  

Since joining Henkel in 2010 he has led the development team and has worked closely with customers to re-design successful product lines with new sustainable technology solutions. 

Henry has thirty years of experience in petrochemical and plastics industries on both  the R&D side and product / process scale-up and commercialization, including international technical service and business development. He has lived and worked in The USA, The Netherlands, Canada and Ireland with major global corporations such as General Electric, Henkel and Syntex  in addition to smaller companies such as Schneller and Huber. Henry holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the National University of Ireland and a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry & Mathematics from University College Dublin. 

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