Why you should build an NPD factory

Name the last time your NPD projects were deemed so important that they were all being worked on at the same time. Maybe key people were dispersed across multiple projects to help expedite them through the door.

And despite all best efforts, still none of the products were launched on time. Knowing this, ‘they’ throw in some more pet projects to get a ‘head start’, so that they too aren’t delivered late. Cunning.

Is there a good model for organising Product Development teams? I certainly haven’t witnessed one.

Hold on a second. Maybe that interminably unimpressed guy from manufacturing has a point. We need to sort ourselves out. It can’t be rocket science.

How to get tasks completed efficiently and on time has been the study of Manufacturing Engineers since the 1800s when Fredrick Taylor got excited about the size of his shovel. Since then, there’s been a torrent of studies, theories, university courses, professorships, mathematical proofs, guru’s, bookshop aisles, and even best sellers dedicated to the science of manufacturing.

Perhaps it’s worth having a chat with old grumpy from the factory.

He takes us on a tour to show off his ‘manufacturing cells’. These are mini factories. Factories-within-a-factory. Each cell has the people, skills, tools and responsibility to do the whole job of converting raw material into finished product, ready to ship. They are small, tightly knit communities where everyone helps each other to simply get the job done. The parts flow; you can see them. When there’s a problem, they all stop, collectively get stuck in to fix it, and away they go again. Crikey, that is a team.

Maybe there’s a reason he looked so dejected when he joined our ‘NPD team’. A loosey goosey bunch of nominated bodies who all report to somebody else, who rarely meet, and who are quite frankly more worried about their day job than supporting this latest brainwave from the R&D geeks, which if like last time, will get canned in a few months anyway when someone points out it’s non-strategic and a complete waste of time.

We move onto the next cell. They’re making something different. There’s a different number of people, different tools, different skills, but it shares the same buzz of progress. The ‘magic’ of a cell over an old-fashioned department/silo structure is blatantly obvious when seeing it in the flesh.

Is this what we do when we create an NPD skunk-works team, or is it something else? Let’s think on that one.

So what’s the reasoning behind the different manufacturing cells?

To design a set of cells, it is important to establish what they call the ‘focus’; what’s important and how can a cell excel at it. It varies by business. They could be product-focused cells where specialist technologies or skills are required. They could be customer-focused cells where it’s important to build a responsive service capability to meet particular customer demands.

Translating this to our world of Development, we could have specialist NPD teams dedicated to different families of project. They could be focused on certain technologies, customers or perhaps project types. For instance, maybe a repackaging Product Development cell with dedicated, co-located resources could really drive consistency across the product range, drive out costs and free up creative resources for the innovation projects.

This is beyond skunk-works. Skunk-works are generally a one-time reaction to save a really, really key project from the vat of functional siloed melee in which the rest have to swim. The Manufacturing Engineers would build an NPD structure that automatically gives every project the simplicity of it’s own well resourced, highly tuned, well practiced skunk-works team, every time. And projects would fly through.

All good in principle, but the devils in the detail. I think we’ll need a closer look at those cells….

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