The Race for Fast Cycle Time
Have you ever noticed that most tools or techniques offered to improve new product development claim to shorten cycle time? It is as though fast cycle time is the universal outcome of anything we do to upgrade our development.
This indicates how uncritically we consider how time to market will enhance our product development. In fact, with a little thought, it becomes clear that there are many different types of cycle time.
The Flavors of Time to Market
- All-out speed: This is the one we think of first. It is indeed valuable when markets evolve quickly, as with fashions and consumer electronics. In this case, it is a clear race against your competitors. But as important as this seems, it is unlikely to be the primary objective of those who endeavor to speed up their product development.
- Minimize schedule variation: For many projects, we aim not for the fastest cycle time, but instead to hit a certain launch window. This occurs for seasonal products or ones that appear on certain holidays. Industrial products are often tied to annual trade shows, and if you miss the show, you have missed a whole year. Variation matters more than raw speed.
- Flexibility: Often responsiveness is mistaken for speed. When technologies or markets are unpredictable or we don’t know how customers will respond, the ability to change course without much disruption is crucial. Note that such responsiveness is the ultimate in innovation, and it can drive the competition crazy. Consider our new book, Flexible Product Development.
- Higher productivity: This—more new products per unit of resources—is the unspoken objective of many managers who are fuzzy in their thinking. They reason that if they can complete the project in half the time, their project expenses will be cut in half, not appreciating that their burn rate will rise as they work more intensively.
- Sticking to schedule: When we discuss time to market objectives with many managers, they realize that they would simply like to stick to schedule, even if it isn’t overly ambitious. When projects run late, meetings start late and run late, parts arrive late, etc., it becomes impossible to plan anything, and everything happens in its own time.
Why Does It Matter?
Despite what some tool vendors suggest, you can’t have it all. Many of these objectives are mutually exclusive. Sticking to schedule fights against flexibility. Higher productivity is incompatible with all-out speed. And lower variation costs you in productivity.
What to do? It is pretty simple: first think carefully about what flavor or cycle time is strategically most important to you. This may vary across project types, new-to-the-world versus mature products, for example. Then select the cycle time tools and techniques intended for those objectives.
Example: Schedule Variation
Many companies are interested in controlling schedule variation today because their substantial improvements in raw cycle time have left variation untouched. In short, they have been employing the wrong tools for the job. Voice-of-the-customer analysis and cross-functional teams shorten average cycle time but don’t affect variation. To reduce the variation, consider project risk management, which is aimed at this objective.
To enhance product development flexibility, pay careful attention to product architecture, prototyping strategy, design alternatives and convergence, and making decisions at the last responsible moment.
To stick to schedule, consider project management.
Most of this site applies to the all-out speed objective.
Finally, if you are interested primarily in productivity, consider approaches such as six sigma and its associated admonition to “do it right the first time.” But before you do this, see our column on the opposite “Do It Wrong the First Time.”
Or pursue further the nuances of cycle time.
(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.