The Nature of Engineering Delivery Flow

Anyone who has worked in a large, fast-paced, multi-project engineering organization understands that it can be very difficult to ensure that delivery is efficient and effective given the high degree of uncertainty involved in many engineering activities. Business profitability depends on getting this right and ‘good enough’ is ‘not good enough’.  Engineering leaders need better tools to manage engineering delivery flow.

Engineering Delivery Flow

Donald Reinertsen authored The Principles of Product Development Flow – Second Generation Lean Product Development exploring the nature of design work flow that is broadly applicable to all engineering delivery and knowledge work in general.  His work was also presented in Harvard Business Review in Six Myths of Product Development.

With the LEAN movement focused on manufacturing waste elimination little attention has been given to the delivery of knowledge work and engineering work in particular. LEAN is often applied in engineering when designing down-stream production efficiencies.  Designing for LEAN production is certainly important but does not provide much guidance to engineering leadership on how to deliver engineering work efficiently and effectively. Reinertsen’s book clarifies why LEAN, and the focus on minimizing variability in production processes in particular, does not fit engineering delivery because as Reinertsen points out ‘product development deals with high variability, nonrepetitive, and nonhomogenous flows’.  The success of LEAN in manufacturing is based on the predictable, repetitive, and homogenous nature of production work.   His book is the first comprehensive analysis of how to understand and achieve efficient and effective delivery of knowledge work based on sound science and a basis for collecting validating evidence.

Managing Engineering Flow

Reinertsen’s key points based on the inherent variability, non-repetitive, and non-homogenous nature of engineering activity are:

  • High utilization can lead to excessive queues in engineering delivery work load which have hidden costs for the business;
  • Engineering work batch size should be reduced (convincingly supported by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup);
  • The importance of tracking and managing engineering work queues;
  • How variability pooling & substitution can be used to manage variability in engineering work;
  • The importance of cadence and synchronization in engineering work flow control;
  • The importance of fast feedback loops (also convincingly supported by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup);
  • Taking a more balanced view in decentralized control of the engineering work delivery stream.

Reinertsen suggests that this is a new field with limited implementation experience.  The principles and approaches identified in these books provide a new set of management tools to manage engineering delivery.

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