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Principle 11: Adapt Technology to Fit Your People and Processes

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
Bill Gates, president and CEO, Microsoft

Companies around the world are trying to find ways to accelerate product development, seeing this as a way to improve competitive advantage. In many cases, their efforts to speed up the PD process focus on advanced technology. Successful utilization of such tools and technology depends on the ability to customize them in a way that makes them exclusive and integrates them uniquely to the company using them. This successful implementation in Toyota is due to that it is important to recognize that this occurs only because Toyota has had the foresight and discipline to customize tools and technology to fit within a broader framework, one that includes people and processes.

Five Primary Principles for Choosing Tools and Technology

The selection process requires a substantial investment of both financial and human resources and can result in organizational upheaval and the loss of irreplaceable time, especially if the new tool or technology does not integrate well with the other two LPDS subsystems; process and people. Adapt tools and technology to fit the people and processes, is a prime directive for implementing and sustaining a successful lean PD system, one that Toyota has internalized exceptionally well. This principle is subdivided into five highly effective steps or subprinciples:

  1. Technologies must be seamlessly integrated. Toyota integrates many of its product development technologies into its V-Comm system. V-Comm integrates surfacing/design testing, digital assembly, simulation and the know-how database into a single seamless system, which enables Toyota engineers to move from design to ergonomic simulation, to update testing results provided by colleagues, and to have access to necessary standards and checklists.
  2. Technologies should support the process, not drive it. Technology consultants often advise, “you need to constantly change your company’s processes to keep up with the latest technology”. From Toyota’s perspective, this is backwards. Changing the process to conform to technology leads to instability, drives massive process variation, confuses people, and creates tremendous waste. As companies tinker with processes to force maximum results from some new whiz-bang technology to demonstrate the wisdom of their strategy and investment, they waste time and money. All too often, the state-of-the-art technology becomes obsolete within a single year. What ensues is a mad rush to acquire the next technological fad, a move that is often even more detrimental to an already dysfunctional process.
  3. Technologies should enhance people, not replace them. In many companies, the primary justification for major technology purchases is reduction of labor costs – that is, how many people will this replace? In a business that is talent driven and dependent on technical expertise, this is clearly counterproductive. In product development, it is best to choose tools an technology that make the best use of engineers’ time and talents. Tools and technology should never be seen as substitutes for expertise; they should complement expertise.
  4. Specific solution oriented: not a silver bullet. Technology can provide high-leverage if a company has a clearly defined purpose for it. Searching for a nonexistent Holy Grail is futile. Technology is never a substitute for the hard work once a lean process is in place and highly skilled people are appropriately trained and organized.
  5. Right size – not king sized. Many western companies have a tendency to buy the biggest, baddest, fastest, and newest tools on the market. NAC often boasts that it is going to leapfrog Toyota by technological one-upmanship. This, however, seldom happens. Example; Toyota has successfully used notebooks for its engineering checklists. NAC developed an impressive online and fully integrated database, convinced that this innovation would help it zoom past Toyota in knowledge management. But the data was vacuous, owned by an independent “technology group” and rarely used. The point is that electronically storing data is no substitute for engineers who develop knowledge over time, create checklists to capture the knowledge, and rely on the cumulative knowledge and the checklists to ensure that things are being done properly.

Adopting Technology to Enable Process

NAC and Toyota think about technology in fundamentally different ways, with NAC focusing on the technology itself and Toyota focusing, first and foremost, on the process. NAC looks at the technology and asks, “What can this technology add to our process? Can we justify purchasing it? How can we get the most of the least amount of money from this technology?” Once purchased, the technology often requires that the current process be changed to make the best use of it. On surface, this may seem logical, but in a lean PD system, it is not. In a true lean PD system, the first step is to reduce waste in a process, then look for opportunities in which the use of technology can support the PD process and develop clear requirements the technology can meet. Finally, if necessary, you work with software vendors to customize the technology appropriately to fit the process. In a lean PD process, rather than having technology drive changes in the process, the process leads you to adopting technology that can enhance it. A lean organization understands that its first concern is always to work at perfecting the process; technology is useful only as an enabler or catalyst.

Source: Liker, J.K and Morgan, J.M, The Toyota Product Development System: Integrating People, Process and Technology, Productivity Press, 2006

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