If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing (W. Edwards Deming)

Setting the stage

One way to improve the performance of innovation might be through a better understanding and deployment of work processes. In other manufacturing industries, improved performance in product development has often been achieved with new work processes commonly referred to as concurrent engineering, simultaneous engineering or integrated product development. These work processes integrate the whole organisation at an early stage in the development process (the fuzzy front end), with a strong customer focus. The development of company work processes has many similarities to the development of the production processes in process industries.

“As a process engineer, you would most certainly be of the opinion that it is impossible to control or improve a process that lacks a proper flowsheet. As an analogue to this statement you should ask the question: “How do we control our innovation work processes and what do their flowsheets look like?”

In the previously presented metaphor company work processes were compared with the bundle of muscles that give the body motion. Current company work processes, do not however always seem to resemble well-trained and agile muscles, and  are seldom designed to satisfy the company’s needs of today or tomorrow; they are often only regrettably an organisational memory from the past. The following definition of a formal work process has been selected in this context (Lager,2010):

“A work process is the set of interrelated activities that are characterised by a set of specific inputs and value-added tasks that produce a set of specific outputs; a work process generally consists of a number of sub-processes. Other characteristics of a formal work process are that an “owner“ of the process should be recognised and that the process should have clear boundaries (interfaces) to connecting work processes.

The work process must have both a customer and a supplier, and the existence of feedback loops is further necessary. Moreover, innovation work processes consists of a number of integrated sub-processes. The general idea of defining different innovation activities more stringently as intimately related sub-processes is however not to separate them, but on the contrary to glue them better together and to provide better structures for integration. Good work processes should be considered as  “blueprints” for corporate best practice in innovation.

While product and process development in the process industries can sometimes be considered as two sides of the same coin (since product development often involves process development work in a laboratory or pilot plant), the lack of distinction often creates confusion both in the operational performance of industrial R&D and in academic research.

Our Perspective

Product and process innovation – two separate but interacting work processes.

Product development is driven by a desire to improve the properties and performance of finished products, even if the nature of the practical development work is the development of process technology in a laboratory. Objectives for product development may include improving product properties, improving product quality (uniformity of composition), or creating more environmentally-friendly products. Process development is driven by internal production objectives. Such objectives may be reduction of production costs, higher production yields, improvement of production volumes, environment-friendly production, etc. The two processes have both different customers, and deliver to different end users.

Product innovation is a process that always must start and finish together with the customers; the drivers for the process are the customers’ needs and their willingness to pay for the product a company develops, produces and supplies. On top of many companies’ agenda for improved R&D performance is today the search for improved and overall faster product innovation. The necessity to use of a formal product innovation process as an instrument for agile product innovation is today generally agreed upon among companies of excellence (Lager, 2000). However, product development teams often run into trouble HOW such a work process should be developed and be accomplished in day-to-day operational product innovation activities.

 Moreover, in the design of products in the process industries, with its intimate coupling between raw material properties, process technology and product attributes, it is also vital to integrate knowledge from all those areas in the work process, since the process embodies the product.

  • Does your company use a formal work process to give guidance for product innovation in your R&D organisation?
  • If you now use a more informal work processes in product innovation, how well are the ownership and delineation of sub-processes defined? How well are interfaces presented? What does the content look like, and how efficient is the total work process?
  • Do you believe that there is a potential to improve the efficiency of your firm’s (informal or formal) product innovation process?