#18 from R&D Innovator Volume 1, Number 5          December 1992

Continuous Improvement in R&D
by Michael J. Garofalo

Mr. Garofalo is president of Daniel Penn Associates, a management consulting firm based in Bloomfield, Connecticut.

I received a phone call soon after going out on my own as a management consultant specializing in productivity improvement. The caller was an R&D manager for a mid-size paint specialty company.  (At the time, I knew nothing about continuous methods of quality improvement in R&D.)

"Read your ad in the Sunday business supplement.  I have a question:  How can you monitor or improve productivity in a research department?  Isn't research, by definition, uncontrollable?"  Thinking amazingly fast, I replied, "Yeah, probably."  "That's what I thought, but we're not getting the kinds of results in new product development my company's used to—at least for the dollars we're spending.  I'm feeling some heat from above."  "What kind of monitoring devices are you using to see where your research projects stand against the budget and the completion schedule?"  "Not many, except for monthly allocation of hours to whichever projects the people are working on.  We really don't benchmark ourselves against any time frame.  Never have— just report against budgeted dollars."

He also told me he sometimes needed to justify exceeding the budget to management.  Occasionally excessive personnel turnover or an obvious setback in a particular experiment was to blame.  But he had to grope for excuses more than he wanted.

We talked for a while and, although I didn't think I could generate any billing from him (what did I know about R&D?), I suggested he ask his people to prepare a step-by-step list of what they expected each project to entail.  This rudimentary plan would help him hold his department at least loosely accountable.  We said goodbye and, ever the excellent salesman, I never followed up with him.

Years later, my company began teaching what is currently called CIP (Continuous Improvement Process) to clients.  The goal of CIP is to have employees and all levels of management constantly evaluate their methods to look for better ones. 

The 10 Steps

CIP is accomplished in these steps:

1.  Introduce the process to the people in the R&D department and lay the groundwork for their involvement with a brief training session.  Emphasize that nothing is sacred and that the goal of examining current procedures is to make everyone's life easier.

2.  Select an ongoing project in the department as a pilot test for CIP.  Analyze existing procedures for that project with a low-tech process called a "Brown Paper."  The name derives from the use of brown wrapping paper upon which are pasted, in sequence, all documents and reports used for the project.  (There's no need for entire reports, the tables of contents may suffice.)

3.  Begin the Brown Paper by assigning two or three members from the pilot group to visually lay out current activity for a particular project.  Examine similar past and present projects to reconstruct the necessary effort.  Include, if available, the work hours spent and the time frame for each logical step.  If possible, check actual times versus time frames originally planned for these steps.

4.  The participants in step 3 give a presentation ("walk through" the Brown Paper) to researchers, assistants, and, yes, the clerical help.  (Clerical and other non-technical employees often have a better overview of what's going right or wrong than the "professionals," probably because people who are engrossed in a project tend to focus too narrowly.)  Invariably, ideas will begin to flow.  "Why on earth are we doing it this way?"  "Where is the verification step?"  "We don't have to fill out this data report manually."

Stress that the Brown Paper is a working document.  Then hang it on a wall in a conspicuous place and invite people to plaster it with ideas on Post-it notes as soon as the ideas strike.  Leave the Brown Paper up for about a week to give everyone time to look it over and make suggestions. 

5.  The participants transcribe suggestions from the Brown Paper onto a blackboard.  Try to figure out logical points to update actual progress against the project sequences in terms of dollars, work hours, time frame, or whatever makes sense to track. 

6.   Establish a steering committee for the CIP program with one or two representatives from each level in the hierarchy. The normal complement is between 5 and 7 people; members should be rotated regularly. 

The committee's functions are to:
a.  review suggestions from participants,
b.  prioritize suggestions,
c.  select one or several initiatives,
d.  assign a project leader to select a work team (this team will start developing and implementing the new process), and
e.  periodically update top management about current initiatives, implementations, and results.  

7.  The steering committee develops a monitoring device (a simple spreadsheet will do) to break the assigned initiative(s) into a schedule for development.  Next to each development step or "action item," list the responsible team member and target dates for testing the initiative, implementing the changes into the normal project procedures, and writing final documentation.

8.  After the initiatives have been tested, update the Brown Paper with the changes and re-title it "The Ideal Process."   Usually it's a good idea to start over with a new sheet of paper because, if things are going right, the old sheet will be dog-eared, scribbled over, and generally messed up.

Again display the Brown Paper for review by the department, as in step 4.  Employees will begin to contribute additional ideas and corrections as they see what they have developed to this point.

9.  Adapt the new procedures and control methods in a subsequent project.

10.  After the new procedures are tested, the participants report to the steering committee and the group on how the process worked.  The steering committee will then develop a plan for review by top management.  If approved, CIP can be expanded to other department members and projects.

Continuing Improvement

From my experience, I would expect that the improvements emanating from this pilot exercise will continue to grow.  The explanation is pretty simple:  Continuous review of a project by the people working on it forces them to find better methods.  They have the experience of collaborating to design and test corrective action and know they are expected to critically examine their procedures.  Finally, they know their ideas will be respected.

If this methodology is expanded to all areas, continuous improvement is practically assured because few activities will escape scrutiny by employees who know they have the power to effect change when needed.

The beauty of CIP is not only the normal but substantial improvements in productivity you can expect from this sort of process review, but also its promotion of total employee involvement. 

Although you might never reach the ideal process, part of the fun is in the effort, and part of the reward is having everyone strive in unison.

I wish that guy from the paint company would call me back.  Now I could really help him.

©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.