Guest Post: Dantar P. Oosterwal on Lean Manufacturing

The following is a guest post by Dantar P. Oosterwal, author of The Lean Machine.

Don’t Bring Lean Manufacturing Upstream

My learning journey to adapt lean manufacturing principles to product development began with a call to Jim Womack, head of the Lean Enterprise Institute. I had met Jim briefly while I was studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had been involved in the seminal study in association with MIT that uncovered the notion of “lean.” The term had been coined in the book The Machine that Changed the World to refer to the lack of waste in the Toyota production system.

Jim was the researcher and author who brought “lean” to the world’s attention, so I enthusiastically called him for his advice. His advice: “Don’t try to bring lean manufacturing upstream to product development!” burst my bubble. It was not what I wanted to hear as I started my journey on wobbly legs. “We’re focused on manufacturing,” Jim had told me when I asked him for help. “Try calling Allen Ward; he studied the Toyota product development system.” My hopes were rekindled when Jim suggested I contact Dr. Ward at the University of Michigan.

It took a while to track Allen down. When I finally did, the reception I got was not much warmer than what I had received from Jim. I began to wonder why no one wanted to talk about lean product development. Perhaps no one wanted to share their secrets, or maybe they didn’t really understand it, I mused. “Buy my book and call me when you’ve read it,” Allen told me over the phone. I ordered the book from Dollar Bill books. I remembered Dollar Bill as a little hole-in-the-wall photocopy shop at the University of Michigan from my college days. I did not expect much from a copy shop, perhaps a syllabus or class notes. When the book arrived, it consisted of eighty-four spiral-bound 3-inch by 5-inch photocopied pages filled with unintelligible gibberish between two laminated card stock covers. It would have been generous to call it a book. My initial instinct was to drop this crazy notion of lean product development, or just go against Jim’s advice and implement lean manufacturing techniques on my own. I had already talked to a number of the big consulting companies. Most were still promoting implementation of phase gate methods. Others had lean manufacturing people applying the manufacturing tools in the non-manufacturing space. I wanted more and expected more, so I slogged on, determined to get someone’s attention.

“Allen, I read your book,” I said after I was finally able to reach him again. The book only took minutes to read, but reaching Allen had taken days again. “I have to admit, that I don’t really understand it. Would it be possible to get together and talk about it?” I continued.

“I’m really busy and I don’t have much time,” he responded. “I don’t care to waste what time I do have dealing with someone who is not really serious about implementing it,” he continued. I had no clue what “it” to implement, but somehow I managed to convince Allen that it was worth investing a day with me. Perhaps it was just the intrigue of Harley-Davidson, but Allen agreed to come to Milwaukee for a day.
Allen was a former Army Ranger and the influence of his military career was clearly evident when we met. He was fit and trim. Everything about him was concise, blunt, and direct. Although flamboyant in his own way, he was very opinionated and freely shared what was on his mind. He was confident and brilliant. In our initial conversations I quickly realized that Allen had unique insights to product development. He clearly had something to offer, but getting it out in a usable fashion would be a challenge. Over time our relationship grew and Allen began to open up as we debated the virtues of applying lean techniques to product development.

Allen received his Ph.D. from MIT. His doctoral research dealt with the hypothesis of a design compiler. He theorized that if design attributes were constructed based on algorithms and fed to a computer, the computer would be able to optimize the various design alternatives much better than a human and in turn create a better design with less time and effort. After receiving his Ph.D., Allen moved to the University of Michigan to begin his teaching career and he continued to explore the notion of a design compiler. He began to investigate whether any company even quantified design attributes in the form of algorithms. He was intrigued to uncover the possibility of applying the principles of a design compiler to industry.

As Allen sought to uncover the principles of a design compiler in industry, over time a rumor emerged that Toyota may have been utilizing practices similar to the notion Allen had proposed. Toyota was developing new products at an astonishing rate. Although Allen had originally pitched his ideas to the auto companies in Detroit, his theories had fallen on deaf ears. The U.S. auto industry was beginning to cry foul as it struggled to compete against the onslaught of well-designed and well-built off-shore competition. Armed with a government research grant and the good will of Toyota, Allen and a graduate student named Durward Sobek began a research project to compare and contrast the product design principles of Toyota and Chrysler. This study became the foundational understanding in the application of lean principles to product development. As I worked with Allen and we applied these principles at Harley-Davidson, the system became known as “Knowledge-Based Product Development” because we felt it better represented the intent of the development system.

Dantar P. Oosterwal is the author of The Lean Machine: How Harley-Davidson Drove Top-Line Growth and Profitability with Revolutionary Lean Product Development (AMACOM 2010). A pioneer in the application of Lean principles to product development, he has led global innovation improvements as Vice President of Innovation at Sara Lee and as Director of Product Development at Harley-Davidson, which received the prestigious Outstanding Corporate Innovator Award from the Product Development Management Association while he was there. He has also been awarded three US patents for innovative product designs. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan and a Master in Management from the Sloan School of Management at MIT. He lives in Batavia, Illinois.


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