The Truth About Product Development

It’s a bit disconcerting when someone seems to dismiss lean manufacturing as old news. Something along those lines appears in the latest issue of Industry Week magazine, in the column by Editor-in-Chief David Blanchard.

            Blanchard writes about the inaugural Manufacturing Excellence Awards, known as MAXA, similar to the magazine’s Best Plants awards, except that MAXA is specifically for facilities located in Singapore.

            He argues that the distinguishing characteristic of the winners is their focus not on low cost or high technology, but on customer-driven product development.

            That’s a fair point. However, Blanchard describes how he asked Professor Kumar Bhattacharyya, one of the awards judges, to talk about the best practices of the winning factories.


            'All of the manufacturers that we visited are using best practices,' Lord Bhattacharyya says. 'Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, kaizen, teamwork – these are all things of the past. Every manufacturer these days has a continuous improvement or quality program going. To be the best of the best, you've got to have something extra.'


            In one sense, Blanchard is right. Being in touch with what your customer wants and responding with appropriate, high-quality, innovative products is critical to success in today’s marketplace. I’ve said so myself. Another champion of this idea is Jerry Flint, automotive columnist for Forbes magazine, who has long argued that Detroit’s problems stem in large part from how rarely it produces products that capture the desires and passions of drivers.

            The problem I have is not with Blanchard, but with Bhattacharyya. First, the professor is, at the very least, exaggerating when he says every manufacturer has a continuous improvement program. He also makes no mention of the fact that the programs at many companies are poorly implemented, or, in some cases, nothing more than lip service.

            However, what bothers me more is the professor’s implication that product development is somehow separate from continuous improvement. Improvement strategies are just as important in product development as they are everywhere else. Read our book, The Toyota Product Development System by James Morgan and Jeffrey Liker for evidence.

            And this is true not just of lean. Focusing on the voice of the customer is a fundamental principle of six sigma as well.

            Moreover, Bhattacharyya does a disservice to manufacturers looking for guidance when he casually describes improvement strategies as “things of the past.” Lean, six sigma et al may not be new, but they are just as important and relevant today – perhaps even more so – as they were decades ago.

            So yes, focus on product development as a critical part of your business strategy. But make sure product development is a fully-integrated piece of your improvement strategy as well.