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R&D Quality

Quality in R&D started in a similar fashion to the way quality started in other functions

by A. Blanton Godfrey

For most organizations, applying quality management in research and development would be a journey into unexplored territory. Although they may have reduced defects by 90 percent and cycle times by 50 percent in production processes, reduced delivery times by 75 percent, cut inventories by 80 percent and improved the accuracy and timeliness of the order-entry processes significantly, they haven't dared to venture into the sacrosanct halls of R&D.

In the past few years, quality management activities have become commonplace in a few R&D organizations. In a remarkable new book to be published by John Wiley & Sons in May, Improving R&D Performance the Juran Way, Al C. Endres, head of the management department at the University of Tampa, documents many of the breakthroughs in R&D quality management reported by leading companies during the past five years reported on at Juran Institute's R&D Quality Symposia.

Quality in R&D started in a similar fashion to the way quality started in other functions. The early efforts concentrated on improving the tasks researchers and developers already performed. People first started looking for areas where they could reduce defects. By concentrating on visible wastes, they were able to make substantial improvements in the costs of R&D activities, to reduce the times different phases of the development cycle took and to improve overall efficiencies.

Many people in R&D organizations were startled to find how little time they actually spent on true R&D. Their days were consumed with meetings, chasing parts and needed supplies, fighting over budget allocations and getting essential equipment working right. Some found that less than 25 percent of the work week was spent on true R&D activities.

The second major effort was in reducing cycle times. In many industries, development cycle times are critical success factors. The pressure in the automotive, electronics and consumer products industries to reduce design and development cycle times has been intense. For many products, developing a new product faster than competitors means the difference between a profit and loss on the entire effort.

Again, early results were quite stunning. One team in Shell Development Co. was able to reduce development cycle time by 12 months, which included a project that reduced times required for generating one type of document from four months to two weeks. Many developers found that standardization, clear process definitions and straightforward quality control plans were tools that simplified work and created new time for real innovation rather than procedures that stifled their creative juices.

A third effort in this early phase of quality activity was in improving the quality of the output of the R&D efforts. This was slowed down by lack of good measurements for R&D quality and long discussions about what R&D quality actually is. Many of the R&D organizations found that they had limited information about actual customer needs, field performance of products or repair histories. Some found that new designs had exactly the same failure modes of previous models. Interdependencies with other products, peripherals and related systems were often not understood. Many people were shocked when they saw how few products introduced were actually "winners" in the marketplace.

The second phase of R&D quality began when R&D functions started to realize their interdependence with other functions in the organization. Companies throughout the world had built up strong barriers to cross-functional work, and these barriers created enormous wastes and delays, and often sub optimization of organizational resources. Without knowing field failures, production inefficiencies, customer preferences and other information only available from many different areas of the company, R&D personnel had made only semi-educated guesses about critical design features.

A third phase of quality in R&D began with the realization of the strong role the customer should play in the design-and-development process. Companies started creating strong project managers to head the development team from start to finish. These new development teams included personnel from all over the company and incorporated frequent customer contact into the entire design process. This was quickly followed by some organizations moving R&D people into customer premises and building true customer/supplier partnerships. Now, many R&D organizations are redefining their entire roles, becoming "design process designers" and creating tools for customers to use to do the design themselves.

About the author

A. Blanton Godfrey is chairman and CEO of Juran Institute Inc., 11 River Road, Wilton, CT 06897. Blan appreciates comments, suggestions or questions about any of his columns and can be reached by e-mail at godfrey@netaxis.com.

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March 97 Quality Digest