Lean product development holds the promise of dramatically improving a company’s competitive position. Its implementation offers the potential for faster product development with fewer engineering hours, improved manufacturability of products, higher quality products, fewer production start-up problems, and faster time to market. Of course, all of this improves the likelihood of market success.

As Christer Karlsson and Pär Åhlström point out, however, a company attempting to implement lean product development must overcome numerous obstacles. By spending more than 2 years observing and facilitating one company’s efforts to make this transition, they were able to identify various factors that either hinder or support the implementation of lean product development.

Lean product development comprises numerous interrelated techniques, including supplier involvement, cross-functional teams, concurrent engineering, integration (as opposed to coordination) of various functional aspects of each project, the use of a heavyweight team structure, and strategic management of each development project. However, a company does not achieve lean product development simply by implementing some of these techniques. A successful move toward lean product development requires approaching these interrelated techniques as elements of a coherent whole.

As observed in the subject company, several factors can hinder attempts to achieve lean product development. For example, managerial overemphasis on R&D in development projects hampers efforts to achieve cross-functional integration. In other words, creating a team with members from various functions is easier than achieving a cross-functional focus throughout an organization. Similarly, a cross-functional team cannot perform effectively if a sequential view of the development process persists.

Factors that support the transition to lean product development include: tight development schedules, which contribute to a must-do attitude; close cooperation with a qualified customer, who can provide vital information as well as challenge the development team; highly competent engineers; and, most important, the active, ongoing support and participation of top management. Most participants in the process examined in this study seemed interested in the possibilities of lean product development, which suggests that motivation to change may not pose a significant problem in similar efforts.

Karlsson, Christer and Åhlström, Pär (1996), “The Difficult Path to Lean product Development”, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 13, No. 4, 283-295.

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