#39 from R&D Innovator Volume 2, Number 6          June 1993

Order From Chaos in Product Development
by Moshe F. Rubinstein, Ph.D.

Dr. Rubinstein is professor of engineering and applied science at the University of California, Los Angeles; he directs seminars for executives and managers of many organizations.  He has written several books including Concepts in Problem Solving and Tools for Thinking and Problem Solving (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1980 and 1986).

Research and development usually require the collaboration of several fields of endeavor.  Traditionally, experts from each field enter the process in sequence, make their contribution and pass their findings to experts from other fields.  This process can lead to conflicts when the downstream experts decide that work must be redone.  It's a pattern that can gobble up vast amounts of time.

As an example, let's look at the typical development sequence of a new automobile.  Initially, preliminary conceptual designs are explored.  When the engineers get involved, they may notice factors like aerodynamics or safety that dictate changes in the overall design.  Later, when it turns out that the aerodynamic design could not be manufactured economically, engineering and design may have to be repeated.  The assembly of the prototype may uncover new problems, leading to further changes in manufacturing, supplied parts, engineering, and possibly even the original design.  Finally when the car is marketed, maintenance and repair personnel may unravel yet further problems. 

All these repetitions are costly, in terms of time, money, and customer satisfaction.  They sap vitality and impede the process of research and development.  Is there a better way?

The Model of Concurrent Perception

The inherent difficulties in the process of sequential design and perceptions can be mitigated by adopting the model of concurrent perception.  In this approach, we share perceptions and ideas at the outset, before decisions are made.  As a result, the process moves us from questions to answers, from divergent perception to convergent perception, from individual creativity to team implementation, from abstract thinking and quick experimentation to concrete action with quality results, from deliberate chaos at the beginning to emergent order at the end.

How would we apply this model to the development of a car?  We'd start by forming a group with representatives from each specialty needed in the cycle of research, development and implementation:  design, engineering, purchasing, manufacturing, finance, marketing, repair, and so on.

Next, the leader would articulate the vision for the product—perhaps a new sports car to compete with the X Corporation's hot-selling Bandit.  The design department would conceive several preliminary design configurations for the car, but before it made a final choice, while the designers were still receptive to changes, we'd call a meeting and have the specialists, representing the diversity of interests in the final product, discuss the preliminary design.

This early involvement would allow specialists who traditionally enter the R&D process near the end to voice concerns and spot problems that would typically emerge later on.  For example, engineering may identify a difficulty with the aerodynamic design, and suggest a remedy, but if manufacturing considered it too difficult to build economically, alternate designs could be suggested.  The more issues that are raised at this early phase, the more perceptions of potential future problems would shared up front . 

All group members look for ideas and possibilities, spot problems before they emerge, and explore ideas within their expertise.  Creativity and innovation, the driving forces of productivity, remain foremost in the minds of those closest to the work.  When revised designs are presented to the group in subsequent conversations, they will once again consider issues in engineering, manufacturing, assembly, maintenance, repair, safety, customer perception, safety, and comfort.

These conversations focus on sharing perceptions, and the word "NO" isn’t heard.  Everything is open and in flux.  If a group member thinks of something outside a meeting, he or she brings it to the group's attention.  As time passes, the group becomes team-bound by the common goal and, most important, each member has a heightened perception of his or her place in the entire process.

Conversation

The arenas for forming concurrent perception are the early and ongoing conversation meetings.  What do we mean by conversation?  The word contains the Latin root of the word for opposite (converse).  In a conversation, opposing views are articulated and in the process new shared insights are gained.  We must enter a conversation with a flexible, open mind, prepared to convert others to our view and willing at the same time to accept the views of others when appropriate.  An effective conversation is an art, a manifestation of maturity.  It requires unprejudiced objectivity.  We must enter a conversation ready to listen and comprehend the perceptions of others, regardless of how remote these are from our perceptions.

In a conversation a specialist can learn of the road maps that guide the thinking and actions of other specialties in the R&D process.  In conversations, tact is as important as substance and content.  We must refrain from judging or criticizing others or even from off-handedly agreeing with them.  We must stay away from attitudes of superiority or inferiority.

Expert as Filter

The need for early and ongoing conversations across the spectrum of R&D experts is rooted in the fact that experts filter information.  When taken in their entirety, many R&D projects are too complex for a single human mind to comprehend, so we filter out much of the information and focus on a part we can see clearly.  While filtering achieves clarity, it comes at the price of ignoring that which was filtered out.  For example, when we hear two conversations, one in a language we know and one in a language we don't, we tune in to the language we know and ignore the other.  The known language is a filter, just as is our particular R&D specialty. 

When a design proposal is presented, manufacturing may see features that will make it easy to assemble, while maintenance may see that the same features make it difficult to take apart for maintenance.  Manufacturing, maintenance and every other specialty act as filters.  Reconciling our perceptions with those of others involved in the R&D cycle is essential to learning.  We must balance the stability of our knowledge with flexibility to modify it, refine it, and even replace it.  Also, it’s important not to completely rely on an expert's opinion; we must always be open to the ideas of outsiders as well.

Chaos to Order 

Research and development are constantly under pressures of time and funding.  Yet opportunities continually arise to improve efficiency and effectiveness. The advantage of the concurrent perception model is that problems are addressed more quickly than in the usual linear process of development.  In the early stages of the concurrent perception model, there is more chaos, more experimentation and change, but almost paradoxically this reduces the need to undo and redo the product later on.

In other words, concurrent perception feeds vitality, while sequential perception saps it.  The model of concurrent perception provides a process for balancing stability and flexibility.  It establishes a learning environment that transcends the traditional boundaries between specialties that must collaborate in research and development.

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