Many companies use stage-gate processes to manage their innovation pipelines. Although these vary between industries and companies, at the core of all these processes is a sequence of decision points which an innovation must pass, where the resources to conduct the next stage of development are not released until the critical questions of the decision point are satisfied.
Many companies use them, but few are truly satisfied with the results. Some innovators find the stage-gate process constricting, and the time taken to prepare for review takes them away from doing research. The management responsible for taking the gate decisions are often disappointed with the information they are expected to make decisions with, and find the time requirement burdensome.
And there is often a sense that the process itself makes innovation slower, delaying the launch of the new products.
To address this using Lean Six Sigma, the first step is to map the process – as it really is, not as the policy or procedures say it is meant to happen! This isn’t easy, as different development project teams will have different views of reality (which may itself indicate one of the problems), but you should be able to identify wastes which can be addressed. Typically, these will include:
Teams can’t advance until their project is reviewed by management, but management don’t meet until next month; in extreme cases, the queue of projects to be reviewed is so great that some projects must be postponed to another date. To eliminate this waste, schedule stage-gate decisions when each project needs them rather than at the convenience of the management diary, and use pre-reading to gather input from those managers who can’t make the actual review meeting. Working on fewer projects simultaneously (see Little’s Law below) will also reduce the burden on the gate review meeting, reducing the impact of this bottleneck.
It is very common for project teams to deliver more information than is needed at that stage of a project, “just in case”. This is clearly a waste of resources, since some projects will be killed so the information is never needed, and it creates delay as teams do unnecessary work. Yet management behaviours can encourage overdelivery – each time they ask a question earlier in the process than it should be answered, they create the conditions for the team to overdeliver next time. Develop a clear “contract” of expectations for each gate review, standardise it, and stick to it.
The other side of the overprocessing coin is when projects don’t answer the critical questions for that stage gate and have to be sent away to prepare again. Once again, developing and adhering to a set of expectations can help, but you will also find that stopping work on things which don’t matter yet increases the attention to the things which do.
Another big gain comes from looking at the total number of projects-in-progress.
Little’s Law shows that the speed of work through a process is proportional to the number of things being worked on simultaneously. Reducing the number of projects and assigning each resource to work on fewer projects leads to those projects being launched faster; yet over time, exactly the same total number of new products are launched.
Companies that have adopted this have gained a terrific lead time advantage over their competitors, although it takes time to see the benefits as excess existing projects must first be closed or finished. It also requires leadership discipline to be maintained, to resist the temptation to start additional projects before resources become free; the confidence that this queue of projects will be delivered faster and more reliably when started will help.
These are only some of the proven approaches to accelerating delivery of R&D projects by applying Lean Six Sigma to the stage-gate process itself.
Lean Six Sigma has the tools to completely transform the R&D environment to reduce lead times, lower development cost and allow you to make better use of your existing resources.
Get in touch now to find out more about our Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Training for R&D.