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What Went Right

With the development engineer assigned to and buried by a new project, it fell to the plant manager to sort out the issues with the propagating cracks. Fortunately, the plant manager recognized that what had worked before had not worked for the new product. Before he plunged into root cause analysis on the cracking problem, he took a huge step back, all the way back to the beginning.

Under pressure to immediately solve the problem, he asked to meet with company management. At the meeting, he asked some fairly basic questions: "How important is this product to the company? Is this a product that will provide us with a competitive advantage in the marketplace?"

His rationale for asking these questions was to get a sense of the purpose of the product. If the product would generate competitive advantage, he and the company would treat the product differently than if it did not.

The plant manager got very clear answers from the management team. This was a product that fit squarely in the company's strategy. The company's claim to fame was using recycled, recovered raw materials to produce industrial products. This product was a perfect example of the company's expertise and creativity.

In that case, the plant manager asked, could he treat this product as what it was—something that would help differentiate the company in the marketplace? Recognizing, in retrospect, the problems with the initial development, the management team gave the plant manager free rein.

The plant manager started by convening the right people. The right people included design engineers, production workers, manufacturing engineers, a sales team, and, in a surprise to everyone, one of the early-adopter customers. To make sure that the team understood all that had happened and all that needed to happen, the plant manager gave a painfully honest review of the development of the product and the issues the company had encountered in moving to full-scale production. After getting the team up to speed, the plant manager asked a gut-wrenching question: "Can we fix the problems or would the company benefit more if we halted production?" This sparked a lively discussion that ranged from necessary changes to the product development process to the humiliation of now shutting down the product line.

The plant manager let this "airing" continue for some time but then refocused the discussion on his question: "Let me ask my question another way: What made this product so critical to us when we launched the initiative?" The answers again ranged from the product's revenue potential to the commitments that had been made. The plant manager then asked a more generic question: "How do we differentiate ourselves in the marketplace?" The company had developed proprietary ways to use recycled products to make new materials. This capability had propelled the company to market-leader status. An engineer asked, "Why does that matter?" The plant manager responded, "It seems to me that if we can solve the issues, this product aligns perfectly with what makes our company unique. With this product, we have once again taken a waste material and produced something of value. For that reason, it seems we should do our best to fix the problems and get this product to market. This product exemplifies what we do. If you agree, let's move onto how we can approach the product. Ignore how we have developed the product to date. As a strategic initiative, what should we do?"

The team then sorted through the specific product features that made the product different. Only one was apparent—the use of waste material to make a usable product. With that as the principal requirement of the product, the team identified design options that could either eliminate or mitigate the full-scale production issues. Would a different form factor reduce the cracking? Or was changing the manufacturing process the only option? As the team discussed these alternatives, they associated complexity and uncertainty with each alternative. In terms of uncertainty, was there a specific market need that their product could meet? With what certainty did they understand these needs? Which form factor would the market accept, and did they know which forms were acceptable? How much did they know about the reactions taking place in the manufacturing process? How well could they link cause and effect? In terms of complexity, which options did they have to simplify the process? How could they simplify the product?

After the team mapped out the options and associated information, the plant manager asked the team which decisions they needed to make now, which decisions they could delay, and what they needed to know prior to making the decisions. All of this information was combined to provide a logical, rational approach for making the product go/kill decision and, if possible, fixing the product problems.

For example, the team could delay the go/kill decision until after the members had determined whether there was a form factor the market was dying to have. Likewise, the team could delay research into the cause of the large-batch cracking if the market would accept form factors that could be made with small batch sizes. To explore these issues further, the team members signed up for the assignments that best matched their interests and capabilities.

Over the next few weeks, the team worked through the assignments and options. Based on the work of the sales team and the early-adopter customer, the team revised the form factor. The new form factor actually met a previously unknown—at least to the company—market need. Revising the form factor enabled the company to manufacture the product in the small batch sizes it could produce without cracks. Taking this approach let the company retain most of its current investment in the manufacturing plant; it just needed to redesign its consumable molds. The team members took a more measured approach by eliminating uncertainty and complexity at each step of the process. They solved the problems they could when they could and postponed work on the most uncertain and complex issues.

Because the product was not "right the first time," the expected revenue was delayed. Also, because of the initial problems, the revenue stream grew more slowly than projected. Nevertheless, the company learned the value of the foundation tools of agile leadership.

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