Smaller batches speed product development

Smaller batches speed product development

We find few things more discouraging than a long line. Several smaller ones, each leading to our goal, get us where we are going more efficiently and with less frustration. Why then do product development managers construct massive queues by assigning large batches of tasks?

Two common trains of thought lead product development managers to this practice. One belief that applies mainly to software is that progress cannot be physically seen. Until many sections of a program are completed, as a development manager, you find it difficult to evaluate and report what is being accomplished. A large batch may be perceived as yielding more concrete results, even if the process is less efficient. Employing a system that visualizes task tracking will allow for smaller batches by eliminating this concern.

Whether your team is developing hardware or software, economies of scale may enter into your calculations. Buying all your materials at once may seem cheaper. You may assume that proceeding with the development of all your tasks simultaneously in a large batch will reduce the time required to complete them, lowering your labor costs. We have discovered that the reverse is true: The larger the batch, the slower and costlier product development becomes. Materials that are found to be inappropriate or unsatisfactory will be wasted, increasing your expenses. Problems with downstream effects will be detected too late to prevent rapid resolution.

Smaller batches build greater efficiency

No matter the engineering project, we have found that large batches will make it difficult to determine which components adversely interact to produce a malfunction. Large batches will also significantly delay any learning or risk reduction on a program. Large batches inevitably mean that you will have limited test data until late in the program when changes are very expensive to make. By focusing on small batches and proving the technology in rapid, incremental succession, you dramatically de-risk any new program. Small batches allow multiple, rapid prototyping iterations, where your engineers can test the behavior of each element, measure the results and drive additional product changes based on actual test data early in the design process when changes are far less expensive.

Picture a software project composed of 100 distinct units of code. You could develop all of them before testing any of them, resulting in difficulties determining which code is producing an error. One faulty line of code can cause your entire program to fail. Instead, start with a reduced batch size, having your team create only 10 units, testing them before beginning others. Your batch size would be 90 percent smaller, and you would see results you could evaluate more rapidly. You also get the benefit of integrating them, demonstrating them to the customer and getting feedback. As a manager, you can also see that something is "done."

The small batch strategy also allows software developers to detect coding errors early and correct them before they have damaging impacts on other sections. Big batches can involve thousands of potential changes where a bug may hide. In a small batch, your team can locate faults quickly and more easily. The logic will be fresh in the developer's mind, eliminating the need for extensive review before changes can be made, and testing can proceed more rapidly.

For companies that develop physical products comprised of multiple elements, testing small batches of components as they are developed results in a much more streamlined process than waiting until a large batch is completed. As each batch is tested, problems can be resolved before they can impact the functioning of the entire product.

Consider the creation of a laptop computer. Chipsets must be evaluated and the appropriate one selected. This choice will lead to the specification of the type of cooling apparatus. If you opt for the active cooling provided by fans, their effect on battery life must be evaluated because the more power a fan draws, the shorter the operating time of the computer will be without recharging. If a small profile is desired in the final product, you may substitute the passive cooling of heatsinks for fans. Again, since excessive heat is a common cause of failure, your options will need to be thoroughly evaluated. You must perform testing under varying power loads. When all your components have been chosen and approved, their configuration must be determined to maximize airflow and promote customer appeal. As each small batch of these tasks is performed in turn, its contribution to the completion of the project will be optimized. By testing small batches, you also are continuously reducing overall product development risk. Each successful batch allows more of the key technologies required to launch the product to be proven to meet the required functionality.

More productive teams

When you use smaller batches in your development process, you'll find that many other advantages become readily apparent. You may uncover problems with your supply chain. If you are developing mechanical assemblies, failures can stem from poor quality management by suppliers such as precision machine shops. Your team can more readily identify deficiencies when examining the interdependence between small numbers of components. If the geometry of one complex part is skewed or tolerances are outside acceptable limits, specifications can be adjusted, or a different provider chosen, to prevent further difficulties.

On the human side, it can be demoralizing for members of your team, managers or customers to wait extended periods of time before seeing the results of their work. Small batches allow for more frequent assessments of progress. You will experience more satisfaction when your efforts can be evaluated and implemented within a shorter time frame.

Your team will also have greater ability to recharge their minds and develop fresh ideas between task batches. As every development step is accomplished, the next one can be designed with a clearer vision. Your overall schedule will become more predictable as a regular pattern for various aspects of development is established.

Smaller batches yield bigger sales

The benefits of small batches extend beyond your product development process. Your company's ability to compete will improve as you gain an increased ability to add new features and eliminate bugs. Your sales force will gain new confidence in their ability to deliver a product that customers need. Small batches can pave the way for higher profits and healthier business growth.

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