Product Development Problems? Time to Upgrade Your "Toolbox"

Project Success

My wife and I recently bought a home. While I wouldn’t call it a fixer-upper, there was a long list of projects to be done to get the home into shape. Carpet removal, wood floor refinishing, new lighting, drywall replacement, paint everywhere, and small electrical and plumbing repairs. With guests arriving in a few short months, I had to get to work.

Even though I had some knowledge and experience with home repairs, I struggled to do the work. First, my basic toolbox wasn’t enough for the diverse list of projects. I needed an upgrade. Second, knowing what things need to be done is not the same as knowing how to do them correctly, efficiently, and per code. I needed some help understanding the processes and methods. Third, understanding that theory is not the same as having hands-on experience doing the work.

To be a successful with home remodels, you need to do five things. If you’re missing one, you will struggle. If you’re missing more than one, you’re in trouble.

1.       Clearly determine which problems need fixing

We would have loved to redo almost everything in the house. Unfortunately, limited time and money forced us to carefully chose and prioritize our work. What was a “must have” versus a “nice to have?” What should be done first and what could wait? The answers set the stage for the entire project.

2.       Understand the broader implications of each job

Before doing any work, you have to understand the big picture. You can’t start to rearrange your kitchen or bathroom without understanding your plumbing and electrical. You can’t go for that “open concept” without considering structural support. Redoing electrical likely means also redoing drywall and paint. Jumping into any of these things without considering the big picture is a recipe for failure.

3.       Get the right tools for the work

Once you have a plan, you need to have the right tools for the work. Demolition, plumbing, electrical, drywall, painting, floor work, and structural changes all require different tools. Having the right tools from the start is key but we don’t always know that when we get started. I didn’t know that I’d need a basin wrench until I was underneath the sink bending my arm in unnatural ways. I got the job done, but it was painful and took way too long. Hindsight is 20/20.

4.       Understand the right ways to use those tools to accomplish each specific goal

Once you know what needs to be done and have the right tools for the work, you still need to understand how to properly use those tools. There are processes and methods for safely wiring your home, making sure the seams at drywall joints are invisible, ensuring your sinks drain properly, and ensuring your “open concept” doesn’t compromise structural integrity. Doing the work is not the same as doing the work well.

5.       Develop expertise through experience and lessons learned

Knowing the theory is also not the same as successfully applying it. The half-dozen YouTube videos I watched on how to dry wall helped me understand the process, but the first walls I did looked terrible. Let’s just say that it’s a good thing I stated with a closet.

But this story isn’t actually about my home remodel. It’s about developing products.

Product Developments

As an engineer and consultant at Base2 Solutions, I work on product developments every day. Most of our clients have smart, talented, highly motivated people with deep domain knowledge. Despite this, they frequently struggle in developing the increasingly complex products that their customers demand. Their problems often stem from one or many of the same reasons I struggled with my home projects.

The products we develop today aren’t really products – they’re systems. A system is a collection of individual parts that work together to accomplish something that none of them could do on their own. We are living in the “Systems Age.” Almost every product we develop is itself a system and works as part of a larger system. Consumer electronics, vehicles, homes and building, medical devices, software- it’s hard to find a product today that isn’t a system. Our highly interconnected world brings new levels of complexity, and new challenges, to product developments.

Google “product development failure rate” or “reasons start-ups fail,” and you’ll find tons of research. No matter which source you use, the moral of the story is the same – developing and producing marketable products, getting them to market when needed, and doing so on budget is hard. The research shows that few companies do this well

When it comes to keys for success, I’ve learned that my home remodel is a great analogy for today’s product developments. Regardless of the development methodology (Agile, Spiral, RAD, V-model, Waterfall, etc.), companies with consistent success developing products demonstrate proficiencies in these key areas:

  • Understanding their market, users, & business objectives
  • Clearly defining the problem statement
  • Determining the requirements for the solution and associated constraints
  • Selecting the optimal concept to meet those requirements, within the constraints
  • Seamlessly translating from concept into design
  • Instantiating the design into a product and efficiently integrating all parts together
  • Verifying the product is built to the requirements
  • Validating the product fits the market, meets user needs, and fulfills business objectives

Fortunately, there is an engineering discipline designed specifically to help organizations do these very things: Systems Engineering. This series will explore how Systems Engineering processes, activities, tools, and techniques can help companies build better products and build products better. Research shows that Systems Engineering’s ROI is huge - improved product success, increased developmental efficiency, shorter time to market, and lower project costs. Interested? Then stay tuned!