Lean Product Development ideas for your CAD problem – Part I

Over the past few months, I’ve been educating myself on Lean Product Development. Like most people, I originally assumed it was simply applying the more commonly known Lean Manufacturing principles to product development. Or, maybe, doing things in product development that will make Lean Manufacturing easier once the development is done. Neither is true. Lean Product Development and Lean Manufacturing share some high level philosophies- but are quite different beasts in practice.

The Lean Culture

The first thing to understand is that Lean is a culture or attitude. It breaks down the nastier bits of corporate hierarchy which are the root cause of workplace backstabbing, political intrigue, and waste.

In a culture that has fully embraced Lean, everyone on the team has the power (and is encouraged) to seek out ways to eliminate waste and improve processes. On the manufacturing side, you may be familiar with the idea that a lowly bolt turner on a production line has the power to pull the “stop” cord at any time, bringing a full production line to a halt. In traditional Western environments, that would definitely be a career limiting move.

Lean cultures create an atmosphere of respect. If you see an area for improvement, there is a very clear process to evaluate your idea… and, if the ROI is there, your idea gets enacted. Simple as that. It doesn’t matter if you are the VP of Engineering or the Engineering Secretary. All ideas are welcomed and encouraged.

Contrast that with the typical culture where new ideas from low level piss-ons are discouraged, regardless of merit. Those piss-ons learn quickly to keep their ideas to themselves. Then those piss-ons climb the corporate latter and become managers who discourage new ideas. That bad culture is self perpetuating and all too common. It’s the reason so many companies miss out on innovation and instead become experts at maintaining an antiquated status-quo.

Lean cultures inspire the best and brightest employees to stay.
Anti-Lean cultures inspire the best and brightest employees to leave.

The Lean Culture and Engineering Tools

In a Lean environment, engineering tools aren’t guarded with the religious fervor most of you have experienced. They are, in fact, regarded simply (and properly) as tools. For example, let’s say a CAD jockey finds a $30k FEA tool that will improve her productivity by 5x and pay for itself in 6 months. Even if that FEA tool comes from a different vendor than all other FEA tools in use, it’s go time. What’s left to discuss? Get ‘r done.

In a typical environment, that CAD jockey will be chastised and ignored.
“We don’t pay you to think. We pay you to draw.”

Lean Product Development philosophies don’t specifically have anything to do with engineering tools. I think true Lean practitioners would run for the hills if some software vendor tried to slap “Lean” in the name of a product.

These philosophies apply to all aspects of the product development process. For example, let’s say the closest bathroom to the engineering department is 3 buildings away. If an engineer happens to notice that each person in the department loses 45 minutes per day in urinal travel, he could make a case for installing a local restroom.

I make this point to setup Part II of this article. I will be focusing on Lean in the context of an engineering software tool– because I work for a software company, SpaceClaim. I just want you to understand that SpaceClaim is not “Lean” in itself. My goal will simply be to share examples of where Lean cultures will typically apply SpaceClaim to remove waste.

Lean isn’t just about a culture of continuous improvement and radical empowerment. Lean also represents a new style of Product Development Process. If you adopt this part of Lean, you will be setting fire to the phase-gate GANTT charts currently ruling your life. Instead, you will turn to a Set Based Concurrent Product Development methodology. This is an area where I do get pretty close to thinking of SpaceClaim as a “Lean” tool. SpaceClaim clearly enables that process, where traditional CAD tools make the process nearly impossible. I’ll cover more on that in the third and final part of this series.