I’ve talked around the edges, but here it is straight over the plate: product before process.
Don’t get me wrong, process is important—I’m an advocate. Six Sigma reduced variation, lean manufacturing increased throughput, and labor and floor space productivity improved. Process thinking has achieved remarkable results, and there’s more fruit to pick.
Productivity, waste reduction, and quality are surrogates for cost. Process thinking, at least in the factory, is all about cost. Cost reduction through waste elimination is good, and the cost-centric focus of process thinking drives all the right behavior. But, if you extrapolate process thinking to its logical end, you arrive at a dark place—make products with the fewest and least capable people. Ungoverned, it’s an asymptotic race to the bottom.
Product thinking is just the governor we need. Before products can be sold, they must be made. That’s why processes exist. What’s important about processes is their output—products. Companies buy expensive machines, build factories, train people, and pay wages so the process can make the product. They do it because the product demands it.
Cost is an important pillar of product thinking, but not the most important one. Products are purchased for what they do: function, features, finish (what they look like), and feel (the experience). The four F’s represent goodness, and goodness is the dominant pillar of product thinking. Improved function, new features, sexy design and new experiences—all within the context of cost—are the tenets of product thinking.
The ratio of goodness to cost is value, but as a word, value is knotty. With product thinking, it’s best to stick with goodness and cost. Here’s why: Process thinking influences only the denominator. Product thinking reinvents both. (However, the ratio is helpful to reinforce the importance of product thinking, with goodness on top and cost on bottom.)
Some time ago, I was part of a new leadership team that inherited an existing product family. The three of us—general manager, marketing leader and engineering leader—were brought in to take the business to the next level. To the credit of the general manager and marketing leader, we assessed the situation, and made a plot of goodness vs. list price for our products and our competitors’. It was clear we needed a significant improvement in our value proposition, which demanded an increase in goodness and decrease in cost. We set unreasonable goals: a 30 percent improvement in goodness and 40 percent improvement in cost. As soon as the audacious goals were written on the white board, they immediately at looked at me as engineering leader and asked, “Can you do it?” Product thinking was the only way.
With a great engineering team, training and lots of product thinking, we hit the numbers. We understood what created function and made the product work better. We reduced product complexity by reducing part count, which improved throughput. We figured out where the cost was and designed it out. And, we designed-in quality. With product thinking, we introduced a low-waste design to the factory. The factory then used lean manufacturing (process thinking) to further reduce waste. It was product before process.
It’s time to remember what got us here: Our companies were founded on good products. We invented new technologies, designed new products and developed new processes around them, in that order. At least to start, it was product before pro-cess.
And it’s time to look forward, because the natural extension of product before process is an asymptotic race to the top.
And it’s time to recognize who can power us along the asymptote—design engineers.