- Proactively address quality issues.
- Understand underlying causes of inefficiency and unpredictability.
- Staff became engaged in the self-improvement process.
- Eliminated gaps in project plans to make them more comprehensive.
- Revamped product development process to emphasize up-front analysis.
- Change Managementent
- Product Development Process
Companies decide to pursue greatness for many reasons.
In 2011, a series of product quality issues were tarnishing Industrial Scientific’s reputation for first-rate customer service. These issues culminated in a recall of one of the company’s highest volume products.
According to the company’s VP of Global Operations, James Quasey, the recall launched a nearly year-long process of self examination. The CEO asked Quasey to lead a team that would compel long-term preventive action. “What we did was driven by a recent pattern of quality issues impacting service, brought home when we did the recall.”
For Industrial Scientific, the pursuit of greatness began when top management decided to act to prevent such a crisis from ever occurring again. Although the chairman was proud of the company’s ability to act quickly to resolve the quality issues, “Everybody said ‘enough is enough,’” Quasey says.
Industrial Scientific selected Product Development Consulting, Inc. (PDC) to help guide the process and formed a steering team that included participants from across the organization. PDC’s approach was appealing because it focuses on real issues rather than theory. It also analyzes past projects through three lenses—context, facts, and perspective--to gather real-world information that companies can apply going forward.
Quasey and the steering team worked with PDC to form six 12-member project history teams. These teams, whose members represented all company functions involved in the project, would review design and development of their products at various locations. Each team met for a full day to create a history extending from product concept to the product in the field. “The purpose was to help us understand what prevented us from being efficient and predictable in delivering a market-leading product,” Quasey says.
The first part of the process consisted of conducting key theme interviews for context and examining existing barriers (facts). Over about two months, the company held meetings at company headquarters in Pittsburgh and in Shanghai. Each project team reached conclusions about the project. Then the steering team ranked individual teams’ input and presented its rankings to the teams for feedback on potential ways to solve the key problems identified. PDC made final recommendations based on its experience.
“One thing I didn’t expect is that it was almost a healing process,” Quasey says. “One of our company’s core values is: ‘seek truth, speak truth.’ The process really emphasized that. We got issues on the table so we could learn and improve.” People spoke up about why they made particular decisions: they didn’t have the right information or felt pressure to move quickly. In some cases, decisions were overridden. Rather than devolving into blame and finger-pointing, “people came out of the process feeling better…The leadership team had the teams’ confidence that they were acting in the interest of improvement.”
Several factors account for the success of the process.
- Because teams were cross-functional, functions that were underrepresented during product development could explain how their unaddressed issues might have affected the end result.
- Team members, rather than a select leadership team, conducted the assessment. The 60 or so participants felt ownership of the process, making them willing to accept its conclusions.
- The steering team returned to the individual teams with its findings to gather additional input, driving further buy-in.
Alongside the project history, the teams added perspective by conducting self-assessments around core best practices in product development. The final scores revealed that Industrial Scientific needed to make changes to bring it closer to the benchmark companies.
“The whole process fit very well with our culture,” Quasey says. “It was an opportunity to live out our values in real time.”
Self-examination drives profound change
Industrial Scientific has made some sweeping changes based on the self-assessment.
Functional silos were a big obstacle to maintaining quality in product development. The company decided to reorganize into four cross-functional product teams. Now, anyone involved in product development is part of one of the four teams. And the company moved quickly: the recommendation was made in June, 2012; team structure was decided on and announced in July; teams began working together October 1.
Other major changes included
- eliminating gaps in project plans to make them more comprehensive;
- revamping the product development process to emphasize up-front analysis (voice of the customer) and earlier testing;
- limiting team member commitment to improve leadership (focusing on a maximum of two or three projects).
Despite the magnitude of the changes, Quasey says the roll-out has gone smoothly. Everyone knew that the self-assessment process, rather than an outside analysis, triggered the changes. “People felt, ‘this is our process.’ It wasn’t like product development or engineering came in and told everyone what they had to do. Every function in the company that touches product development had input. I could see as we rolled this out that there was clear buy-in.”
Industrial Scientific views the process as a long-term undertaking and knows it will take time to see the full effects of the changes. The company and its customers have experienced immediate benefits of the program, and expect even better results starting in early 2014 for products developed using the new process.
SIDEBAR: Creating the right incentives
Although quality first is a core value for Industrial Scientific, the self-assessment process revealed that project managers were sometimes focused on meeting deadlines to the exclusion of other factors. Activities such as testing might be short-changed in the interest of time. Project managers faced pressures that resulted in them making decisions that didn’t necessarily align with what senior management wanted.
To remedy this, the company will implement a project contract that helps align the company’s dedication to quality with the daily actions of project managers. The contract requires that project managers call an out-of-bounds meeting not only to address schedule deviations but also if the project will deviate from the required amount of testing.