Measuring Progress of Product Development Projects: What You Measure is What You Get- Part 2 of 2

Confused Man

Another point about prototypes is that they are expensive and time consuming to design and build. Typically, a great deal of decision making and design effort is expended in creating a design to be prototyped and also in building and debugging the prototypes. The evolution of rapid prototyping technologies has greatly reduced the cost and time of fabricating prototype parts; however, the cost and time associated with designing them is high. Many hours of labor are expended working through the major and minor design details needed to make the various systems and components integrate together functionally and physically. This large amount of labor is expended on the assumption that the underlying product requirements and design concepts are accurate and well founded. Otherwise, if it should be learned during the prototype phase that there is a significant change that must be made to a major product requirement or to a fundamental design concept then it is quite likely that much if not all of the design effort expended will need to be recreated, a potentially disastrous waste of time and resources.

A physical prototype has the psychological benefit of seeming “real” in a way that abstract sketches, test summaries and trade off curves do not. It may also be easier and more intuitive for managers or other stake holders, whose primary skills may not be of a technical nature, to understand the former than the latter. However, for a good product development process, the prototype phase is far along in the timeline and budget for the project, typically beyond the half-way point. This is way too late in the project for the senior management to get their first real measure of whether the project is progressing properly because if they should find out that it is not, then it may be too late to take the necessary corrective action to get the project back on track. By the time the first prototypes are constructed the development engineers should already have a fairly high confidence level that they know what to expect with the prototype, otherwise they probably should not be building it in the first place. Companies with a strong track record of product development “front load” their projects by focusing proportionately more time and resources on the concept phase of the project. It is generally far faster and more cost efficient to prove or disprove these concepts separately and independently than it is to go through the time and expense of incorporating them together into a prototype of the entire systems only to learn later that one or more of the fundamental design concepts is flawed.

A good product development process helps insure that development steps are performed in the proper order and that critical communication is occurring between the various functions of the organization. The only real way for senior managers to “measure progress” in the development of a new product is for them to determine whether the product development process that has been established is being followed and whether critical milestones and phase reviews that have been defined are being reached. Not only should they ensure that these milestones are being reached on schedule per the timeline, but they must ensure that they are actually being reached in practice! It is of no value in the long run if an organization merely goes through the motions of following a product development process. It may look good on paper and appease management in the near term to proclaim that milestones have been reached and that phase reviews have been held; however, if the substance of those events is lacking, this may result in cost overruns, delays and an inferior product.

Management must have a way of measuring progress at the pre-prototype stages of product development if they truly want to understand whether the project is on track and want to be able to make course corrections in time to have a meaningful impact. It is part of the responsibility of the project managers and lead engineers to correctly identify the major milestones that must be achieved prior to prototyping. They must be able to track the progress toward these milestones and accurately and substantively communicate this information to senior management in a way that is concise and understandable.