As I sit here during our “stay-at-home order” I find myself reflecting on how companies are responding to the pandemic.  Many companies are quickly reworking their supply chains and manufacturing process to support new customer requirements, sometimes completely different, compared to what they have done in the past. The Race to Make Ventilators, from National Public Radio, is a great example of how companies can radically decrease their time to market. The story highlights two companies Twin City Die Casting and Die Tech Engineering Services who were able to develop a mold and produce small ventilator pistons within a few days vs their typical time of 12 weeks.  While I do not have any ‘inside’ information on how these companies operate, listening to the story I heard three underlying concepts (prioritization, team effectiveness, and leveraging retained knowledge) that most Lean practitioners would recognize. I believe that any companies that focus on these practices would also see significant reductions in their time to market. Let’s explore these practices in a little more detail.

Prioritization: What teams work on

When companies need to do something fast, they immediately set it is a ‘top priority’ clearly and consistently communicating the status to all stakeholders. In the story, there was no doubt to the teams, that their effort was the highest priority with life or death implications. While most projects are not ‘life or death’ there is a priority (stated or unstated) based on a benefit that the organization is trying to achieve by its completion. To increase speed, the priority for all projects must be identified and clear rules established over how decisions are made and resources allocated based on this priority.  An excellent understanding of prioritization can be gained by reading Mastering Lean Product Development by Ron Mascitelli. In the first two chapters, Ron provides a practical approach to selecting and prioritizing development products as well as how to manage a system with finite capacity. I know this system works because I helped implement the concept at a previous employer. We saw our high-priority projects accelerate and the entire portfolio’s time to market decrease as we better managed our work in-process. Another benefit was an increase in the predictability of our project schedules as teams knew how finite capacity would be allocated. 

Team Effectiveness: How teams work

While not stated in the story we can assume that the development teams practiced ‘extreme collaboration’ with high-levels of trust, rapid closed-loop communication, and immediate decision making when obstacles were identified. Anyone who has sat through ineffective weekly team meetings (probably everyone reading this) knows the negative impact of poor team effectiveness. What could be more detrimental to creating value than having your most valuable “value-creators” spending their time in a conference room for multiple hours per week where 5-10% of the content is relevant to their work or rehashing the same conversations because a gap in knowledge? A different approach is to implement visual management and stand-up huddles in your product development areas. The best way to increase the speed of communication, build team trust, and decrease the lag time to address obstacles is for the team to meet on a predictable schedule in short, high-energy, focused sessions. During the sessions the work and its status is visible to all, problems are identified immediately, and the correct people are identified to solve them.  The act of standing sets a different tone and helps people keep their updates and the discussion concise. Replacing your traditional weekly or bi-weekly team meetings with visual management and huddles will have a significant positive impact on your time to market and morale. 

Knowledge: Rapidly turning unknowns into knowns

As soon as the CEO of the die casting company heard about the need to make precision pistons for ventilators his response was “we know how to make that part.”  While the story doesn’t explain how he knew, it does provide some clues. Because they ‘knew’ how to make the part we can assume that there had been some intentional knowledge development and retention before this challenge was faced. This also meant they were immediately in ‘development’ and not in ‘research.’  If you want to move fast you need to keep research projects out of development. An early step in the process was to call their most trusted supplier of dies. One can assume this was a trusted relationship built over multiple projects allowing information and knowledge to flow over established connections and quickly be applied to the development of a new die. Lastly, the approach was described as “all hands on deck” where all engineers (including engineering managers) were set against the task. Can you imagine the amount of retained knowledge available to help solve problems and quickly make decisions? Quickly turning ‘unknowns’ into ‘knowns’ by applying your retained knowledge, whether it exists in cross-trained staff, trade-off curves, or embedded into your computer systems will always accelerate progress. 

While it may not be realistic to implement these practices as aggressively as in this ‘life or death’ scenario, modest steps in an intentional and sustained manner will drive significant reductions in your time to market.  Before you turn to sophisticated computer systems or complicated project management methods see how much progress you can make by implementing these practical approaches. In addition to decreasing your time to market, you will likely also see the morale among your development teams improve as they spend more time doing what they came there to do — develop new products that drive value. Maybe you will even get a response like Todd Olson’s when the first parts came out of the manufacturing process in days vs weeks “I am feeling awesome!”