By John McNichols
Only a tiny fraction of product ideas ever get built into prototypes. The prototypes that actually make it to successful commercialization are much fewer still. While we celebrate the inventor (and we should), the truth is that some of the most surprising and important product innovations come during the development process.
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That process may seem a lot less exciting than the invention stage because of its more rigorous structure, but that same necessary structure provides opportunities to spot potential issues and correct them early. There is no worse feeling than finding out your recently released product has a preventable bug or issue.
To mitigate that risk, leading firms employ a well-defined approach including product definition, analysis, design, supply chain planning, construction, testing, production, sales and distribution. Traditionally, the approach was based on tasks or phases, with the next phase beginning only after the last one was completed. The challenge with this old approach, though, is that it freezes decisions early and minimizes the flexibility needed to respond to new research findings or customer needs.
As a result, many firms have moved to a Milestone Process for product development, which is process-oriented rather than task-oriented. Individuals or teams are given responsibility for select milestones and multiple teams can be working toward various milestones at a given time.
At Crosspoint Kinetics, we adopted the Milestone Process proven successful by larger international companies, including our joint-venture partner Cummins. The process is driven by documented plans, analysis, test results, product documentation, training and infrastructure.
Another key element to success of any structured development process is clearly defined roles and accountabilities. This involves detailed planning, frequent formal and informal communication, and senior executive visibility.
Critical development phases are completed when evidence is presented at that phase’s milestone or “gate.” This process assures that the product developed is ready to progress to the next phase. Higher risk components of a project are identified and verified as early as possible.
At the point which the design is substantially complete and tested, key product documentation goes under document control. This critical process ensures team-wide concurrence that requirements are being addressed and that the chosen design performs as expected. From this point forward, any change to documentation must be reviewed and approved before it is “released” for use. This process of document control includes everything from product specifications, design documents, supply agreements, test plans, training materials and even sales literature.
Innovation does not stop once the initial concept goes to market but, through iterative development and successive releases, continues to evolve along a product roadmap. In this way, the process is more cyclical than linear.
This structured approach to product development has been refined over the years by governments and Fortune 500 companies. The iterative approach, milestone achievement, documentation and release processes ensure that innovative products reach a sustainable market while meeting the needs of real customers now and in the future.