Monday, June 30, 2008

Why or Why Not?

If you were to hear a proposal for a different path or direction in approaching a project would your initial response be more of a “why” or a “why not”? One response is indicative of an attitude towards continuous improvement while the other signals a belief that things are OK. If we find ourselves routinely asking “why” to change we are sending a message to our team that things are OK, or at least good enough, thereby minimizing valuable opportunities for improvements. A continuous improvement culture is an essential ingredient of continued, long-term success and is the subject for this posting.

Why would we decide to try something different? The path to different is peppered with unknowns, is an uncomfortable journey and has an outcome that is difficult to predict. Staying the same is fairly comfortable and is reasonably easy to predict, at least for now. So again, "why" would we want to change anything? Only if we reach the conclusion that staying the same is going to somehow negatively impact our future. I would think the possibility of losing something important (jobs, revenue, customers, market share etc.) is a great motivator for change, forcing our line of thinking more towards "why not" when considering alternative tactics for managing NPD projects.

How has the semiconductor industries approach to new product development changed over the last 15 years? I would surely think there has been plenty of motivation to improve during this period with all the outsourcing, off shoring and head count reductions that have occurred. Although I am not sure the industry has hit the pain threshold yet. Other than new tools/flows, I do not see the majority of design organizations making any significant changes in the way they have approached design projects. Multiple spins and schedule slips are still accepted as the norm, with reasons usually attributed to tools. "It's just the way it is" thinking lives strong. Through this quiet acceptance there is a continuous message that we we must improve. Interestingly, specific actions for perking up execution tend to be largely downplayed, or given some superficial hand waving attention because we don't have time for such indirect activities. We are caught up in the "why" of change.

Let's step back for a moment and take a look at the US auto industry. Was it tooling capabilities that have eroded their market share year after year or was it the culture? No question the answer is culture. Take a look at Toyota's approach to both development and production. There is a lot to learn from them, if and when we are ready to do so. The employees on the floor are encouraged to continually be challenging the way things are done through real experimentation. The execution focus is always on ideal, a goal that is never reached, although continuously strived for. No one will dispute the fact that their approach has brought them great success. A culture that embraces "why not try something different" has driven Toyota to become a standard for execution excellence. Consider the Prius. A few years back I am sure there was plenty of "why" type thinking going on at manufacturers considering a hybrid type concept, and today those same manufacturers are all playing catch up to Toyota.

Now back to the semiconductor business. Based on my research the majority of design organizations believe they are executing on projects OK, or at least good enough. In fact, the bulk of teams do not regard a concentrated effort on continuous improvement strategies as a practical use of their limited resources. In our industry "why" is a common response to any activity related to changing the approach to projects. For Toyota I would expect the typical response to a question about trying something different to be "why not". How much will we need to lose before we get rattled enough to convert our mind set to one of "why not" when considering changes to the way we execute our NPD projects?

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