How can I reduce risks in product development?

10th April 2019

How can I reduce risks in product development?

Developing new products has never been the most reliable route to guaranteed riches. Statistics on new product failure rates vary hugely, but many ideas never see the light of day and of those that do, a significant proportion fail.

The reasons for these failures are extremely varied, but come down to poor understanding of the market and lack of organisation. “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door” said Ralph Waldo Emerson in the late nineteenth century. It might have been true then, but the modern inventor of better mousetraps needs to negotiate hundreds of other types of trap before they can reap the rewards of their hard work. From demographics to disposal, marketing to manufacture – it’s a jungle out there.

There are many ‘airport bookshop’ publications that claim to offer advice on becoming a successful inventor or manufacturer – not all of which can be relied upon. However, some useful assistance on this subject comes from a well trusted and almost unlikely source – British Standards. Most of us associate British Standards with worthy but rather dull documents that state what must be done in often impenetrable language. In contrast to this, BS7000 part 2: Guide to managing the design of manufactured products, to give its full title, is a remarkably useful document that covers almost every area of product development, and provides some extremely sensible guidance and advice.

The importance of teamwork

BS7000-2 covers both the organisation of the design process within a company and the management of individual projects, and the value of the document is clear from the very first sentence:

“Creating and delivering excellent products with market appeal and high levels of customer satisfaction requires an integrated approach to design, from the board of an organization to project managers and their multi-disciplinary teams”.

The two key words here are ‘integrated’ and ‘teams’. You might think that product development would be the ultimate integrated team based activity, taking in – as it does – marketing, engineering, design, sales, production and maintenance issues, but the reality is, in many companies, quite different. A combination of professional rivalries, company politics, urgent deadlines and management inertia means that product development is often dominated by either marketing or technical departments, and that product development programmes have too narrow a focus, often leading to failure.

Teamwork in product development

BS7000-2 has some useful advice on this topic. It suggests that senior management have an obligation to integrate design at a strategic level, and should, amongst other things:

  • Formulate the organization’s design philosophy and promote it enthusiastically;
  • Introduce and reinforce an appropriate design management system and infrastructure to sustain design work to the required standard, ensuring that it is integrated with other disciplines;
  • Consider areas for concurrent working at the start of the project and assemble a multi-disciplinary team that includes all relevant specialisms;
  • Review the design process at regular intervals against the design brief and specifications;
  • Evaluate the project and deliverables on completion of the design activity, with a view to making improvements in the future;

Covering all the issues

At the strategic management level, the standard covers every aspect of new product development, from how to formulate the programme itself, through managing risk (and identifying  the difference between risk and opportunity) to the detailed topics of legal standards, market positioning, environmental issues and the promotion and selling of a new product.

One particularly important – and often overlooked – issue is that of audits. The standard lays out some very clear guidance on how to audit the application of design across your company, including manuals, the company reception area, what your competitors are doing that you aren’t and what new developments are likely to impact on your products.

It also stresses the importance of putting the customer in the centre of the process, and of carrying out detailed customer research as a vital part of any product development project. Like teamwork, you would think that this would be commonplace, but you would be wrong. Many companies still sell what they make, rather than making what customers want to buy.

The voice of the customer

The management section of the standard concludes with a recommendation that all projects should end with a review to identify areas of improvement that might benefit subsequent investment in design and avoid mistakes being repeated in the future. No witch hunts – simply a learning process aimed at improvement, not recrimination.

Above all, the standard emphasises the importance of organising and leading design from the highest level of the company, and ensuring that it impacts on every aspect of the business – from the website to the washroom (and the often neglected reception area).

Delivering the goods

The second section of BS7000-2 deals with the management of individual projects. It covers many of the same issues, but the emphasis is more specific.

For example, the standard includes very useful guidelines and checklists on developing project specifications to make sure that every issue is considered, from marketing to production and recycling.

The central focus of the project section is also on teamwork, with the emphasis on:

  • Ensuring that the team covers every aspect of the project, including marketing, sales, technical, production, maintenance, design and finance;
  • Establishing clear team responsibilities;
  • Ensuring that the design meets the specification;
  • Controlling and monitoring risks;
  • Managing costs;
  • Holding regular design reviews with the whole team.

BS7000-2 emphasises the importance of good communication in achieving these objectives, and the role of design reviews in both keeping everyone informed and allowing ideas to be challenged and discussed.

The importance of reviews cannot be overstated, which is somewhat ironic, as they are often forgotten. We all know the situation - deadlines to meet, finding a time when everyone is available, and the concern that Keith from production is going to raise a problem that you’d rather not confront. So the reviews don’t happen. The problem with this is not that the project will fail – it probably won’t – but it will be less successful than it would have been if the regular reviews had taken place, as you will have missed all the opportunities that they would have identified. (Keith actually had a great idea that would have taken half an hour off the assembly time…).

Fail early and fail often…

BS7000-2 also tackles the knotty problem of prototyping. James Dyson famously advertised his original products with a label that said that they were the result of 5000 prototypes. Dyson clearly believes in the value of failure and the process of refining and improving. Others seem to believe that a prototype is merely a means of confirming your data between the CAD programme and mass production. BS7000-2 supports Dyson’s approach, clearly defining different types of prototype from ‘experimental’, through ‘test’ to ‘development’ and ‘pre-production’.  These distinctions clearly identify the role of prototypes as a vital design tool, not just a means of checking a few dimensions prior to manufacture. The important issue here is time. Whilst we are all under constant pressure to minimise development lead times, implementing the approaches laid out in BS7000 can help companies develop an appropriate approach to development and prototyping that will, like Dyson, deliver success.

The importance of testing in product development

The same approach is taken to testing, or ‘verification and validation’ as the standard refers to it. In this context, ‘verification’ is the process of checking that the design conforms to the specified requirements, whilst ‘validation’ concerns whether the design conforms to customer needs and requirements. In simple terms, verification is about whether the product works, whilst validation is more about its suitability to be sold. Again, the standard lays out some useful guidelines for the creation of protocols and approaches to product testing that help minimise risk and improve the chances of commercial success.

The final section of BS7000-2 is titled the ‘evaluation and continual improvement’ phases, and emphasises the importance of monitoring customer feedback, markets statistics and a continuous process of review and improvement.  These reviews include evaluating the management of the design projects and the process of individual projects and can, if implemented correctly, be extremely thorough – and time consuming. Whilst such a level of detail – and time investment - is not possible for many companies, it emphasises the comprehensive nature of the standard, and the extent to which it can assist with the management and implementation of design at every level of product development.

Perhaps the final word should be given to the standard itself and this excerpt from the Introduction:

“The complex intellectual challenges presented in product design demand that the process is managed effectively if the outcome is to be successful. The concepts, principles and quality system elements described in this standard are applicable to all forms of manufactured products. Applying the principles described will facilitate the creation of products that are produced on time and within budget, meet customer and organizational requirements, and have a better chance of competing successfully in world markets”.

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