Archive for March, 2010

Discontinuous Improvement at the Expense of Continuous Improvement

Five percent here, three percent there. I’m tired as hell of continuous improvement. Sure there’s a place for it, but it shouldn’t be the only type of work we do. But, unfortunately, that’s just what’s happened in manufacturing. To secure the balance sheet, the pendulum swung too far toward continuous improvement. Just look at what we’re writing about – the next low cost country, shorter lead times, how to be profitable where there’s no profit to be had. Those topics scream continuous improvement – take nickels and dimes out of processes to increase profits. But there’s a dark side to all this focus on continuous improvement.  It has created a big problem: it has come at the expense of discontinuous improvement.

Continuous improvement is a philosophy of minimization with a focus on cost and waste reduction, while discontinuous improvement is a philosophy of maximization with a focus on creation of new markets through product innovation. As of late, we’ve minimized waste at the expense of invention and innovation. I propose we flip this on its head and maximize through discontinuous improvement at the expense of continuous improvement. That’s right; I said do less lean and Six Sigma.

But we must ask ourselves if we’re capable of doing discontinuous improvement. Remember, we ignored or dismantled our innovation engines over the last years. And what about our big thinkers, our creative thinkers, our innovators? Do they still work for us, or have they just stopped talking about big ideas? I urge you to answer that question because your next actions depend on it.

If your innovative thinkers are gone, go out and hire the best you can find ASAP. If you were fortunate enough to retain your big thinkers, congratulations. Now it’s time to get the band back together, but first you’ve got to do some reconnaissance to ferret them out of their hiding places. Once you find them, invite them to a nice lunch – the nicer the better. Don’t push too hard at lunch, just start to  get reacquainted. In time you’ll get to talk about their ideas on new technologies and how to create new markets.

It will be difficult to get your company swing the pendulum away from continuous improvement, but you must try. Without discontinuous improvement your company will be destined to wrestle for nickels using lean and Six Sigma.

Keynote Presentation – DFMA for Discontinuous Improvement and Innovation

DFMA Forum LogoTuesday, June 15th, 2010
9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
Keynote Presentation

2010 INTERNATIONAL FORUM on Design for Manufacturing and Assembly
Providence, Rhode Island, USA

DFMA for Discontinuous Improvement and Innovation


The literature is full of examples of companies using DFMA to design lower cost products.  Though the savings are radical in magnitude, there is a general misconception that DFMA is most like continuous improvement work with regular installments of small improvements.  This thinking does DFMA an injustice, as the DFMA process drives creative solutions, radical changes, discontinuous improvement, and innovation.  The paper describes how to use DFMA to define areas for discontinuous improvement and innovation, how to create a design approach, and how to define and execute a project plan to achieve radical improvement.

Dr. Mike Shipulski

For the past six years as Director of Engineering at Hypertherm, Inc., Mike has had the responsibilities of product development, technology development, sustaining engineering, engineering talent development, engineering labs, and intellectual property. Before Hypertherm, Mike worked in a manufacturing start‐up as the Director of Manufacturing and at General Electric’s R&D center as a Manufacturing Scientist during the start‐up phase of GE’s Six Sigma efforts. Mike received a Ph.D. in Manufacturing Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Mike is the winner of the 2006 DFMA Supporter of the Year, and has been a keynote presenter at the DFMA Forum since 2006.

Pareto’s Three Lenses for Product Design

Axiom 1 – Time is short, so make sure you’re working on the most important stuff.

Axiom 2 – You can’t design out what you can’t see.

In product development, these two axioms can keep you out of trouble. They’re two sides of the same coin, but I’ll describe them one at a time and hope it comes together in the end.

With Axiom 1, how do you make sure you’re working on the most important stuff? We all know it’s function first – no learning there. But, sorry design engineers, it doesn’t end with function. You must also design for lean, for cost, and factory floor space. Great. More things to design for. Didn’t you say time was short? How the hell am I going to design for all that?

Now onto the seeing business of Axiom 2. If we agree that lean, cost, and factory floor space are the right stuff, we must “see it” if we are to design it out. See lean? See cost? See factory floor space? You’re nuts.  How do you expect us to do that?

Pareto to the rescue – use Pareto charts to identify the most important stuff, to prioritize the work. With Pareto, it’s simple: work on the biggest bars at the expense of the smaller ones. But, Paretos of what?

There is no such thing as a clean sheet design – all new product designs have a lineage. A new design is based on an existing design, a baseline design, with improvements made in several areas to realize more features or better function defined by the product specification. The Pareto charts are created from the baseline design to allow you to see the things  to design out (Axiom 2). But what lenses to use to see lean, cost, and factory floor space?

Here are Pareto’s three lenses so see what must be seen:

To lean out lean out your factory, design out the parts. Parts create waste and part count is the surrogate for lean.


To design out cost, measure cost. Cost is the surrogate for cost.


To design out factory floor space, measure assembly time. Since factory floor space scales with assembly time, assembly time is the surrogate for factory floor space.


Now that your design engineers have created the right Pareto charts and can see with the right glasses, they’re ready to focus their efforts on the most important stuff. No boiling the ocean here. For lean, focus on part count of subassembly 1; for cost, focus on the cost of subassemblies 2 and 4; for floor space, focus on assembly time of subassembly 5. Leave the others alone.

Focus is important and difficult, but Pareto can help you see the light.

Workshop on Systematic DFMA Deployment

DFMA Forum LogoMonday, June 14th, 2010
1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Pre‐Conference Workshop

2010 INTERNATIONAL FORUM on Design for Manufacturing and Assembly
Providence, Rhode Island, USA

Systematic DFMA Deployment
Real‐World Implementation and Hard Savings Make the Difference

Systematic DMFA Deployment is a straightforward, logical method to design out product cost and design in product function. Whether you want to learn about DFMA, execute a single project, implement across the company, or convince company leaders of DFMA benefits, this workshop is for you.

Systematic DMFA Deployment workshop attendees will learn how to:

  • Select and manage projects
  • Define resources and quantify savings
  • Communicate benefits to company leadership
  • Coordinate with lean and Six Sigma
  • Get more out of DFMA software

Once you understand the principles of the Systematic DFMA Deployment milestone‐based system, you
will focus on activities that actually reduce product cost and avoid wheel‐spinning activities that create

Workshop Fee: $95

Dr. Mike Shipulski

For the past six years as Director of Engineering at Hypertherm, Inc., Mike has had the responsibilities of product development, technology development, sustaining engineering, engineering talent development, engineering labs, and intellectual property. Before Hypertherm, Mike worked in a manufacturing start‐up as the Director of Manufacturing and at General Electric’s R&D center as a Manufacturing Scientist during the start‐up phase of GE’s Six Sigma efforts. Mike received a Ph.D. in Manufacturing Engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Mike is the winner of the 2006 DFMA Supporter of the Year, and has been a keynote presenter at the DFMA Forum since 2006.

Blind To Your Own Assumptions

Whether inventing new technologies, designing new products, or solving manufacturing problems, it’s important to understand assumptions. Assumptions shape the technical approach and focus thinking on what is considered (assumed) most important. Blindness to assumptions is all around us and is a real reason for concern.  And the kicker, the most dangerous ones are also the most difficult to see – your own assumptions. What techniques or processes can we use to ferret out our own implicit assumptions?

By definition, implicit assumptions are made without formalization, they’re not explicit. Unknowingly, fertile design space can be walled off. Like the archeologist digging on the wrong side of they pyramid, dig all he wants, he won’t find the treasure because it isn’t there. Also with implicit assumptions, precious time and energy can be wasted solving the wrong problem. Like the auto mechanic who replaced the wrong part, the real problem remains. Both scenarios can create severe consequences for a product development project.  (NOTE: the notion of implicit assumptions is closely related to the notion of intellectual  inertia.  See Categories – Intellectual Inertia for a detailed treatment.)

Now the tough part. How to identify your own implicit assumptions? When at their best, the halves of our brains play nicely together, but never does either side rise to the level of omnipotence. It’s impossible to stand outside ourselves and watch us make implicit assumptions. We don’t work that way. We need some techniques.

Narrow, narrow, narrow. The probability of making implicit assumptions decreases when the conflict domain is narrowed.

Narrow in space and time to make the conflict domain small and assumptions are reduced.

Narrow the conflict domain in space – narrow to two elements of the design that aren’t getting along. Not three elements – that’s one too many, but two. Narrow further and make sure the two conflicting elements are in direct physical contact, with nothing in between. Narrow further and define where they touch. Get small, really small, so small the direct contact is all you see. Narrowing in space reduces space-based assumptions.

Narrow the conflict domain in time – break it into three time domains: pre-conflict time, conflict time, post-conflict time. This is a foreign idea, but a powerful one. Solutions are different in the three time domains. The conflict can be prevented before it happens in the pre-conflict time, conflict can be dealt with while it’s happening (usually a short time) in the conflict time, and ramifications of the conflict can be cleaned up in the post-conflict time. Narrowing in time reduces time-based assumptions.

Assumptions narrow even further when the conflict domain is narrowed in time and space together, limiting them to the where and when of the conflict. Like the intersection of two overlapping circles, the conflict domain is sharply narrowed at the intersection of space and time – a small space over a short time.

It’s best to create a picture of the conflict domain to understand it in space and time. Below (click to enlarge) is an example where abrasives (brown) in a stream of water (light blue) flow through a hole in a metal plate (gray) creating wear of the sidewall (in red). Pre-conflict time is before the abrasive particles enter the hole from the top; conflict time is while the particles contact the sidewall (conflict domain in red); post-conflict time is after the particles leave the hole. Only the right side of the metal place is shown to focus on the conflict domain. There is no conflict where the abrasive particles do not touch the sidewall.

blind to assumptions conflict domain

Even if your radar is up and running, assumptions are tough to see – they’re translucent at best. But the techniques can help, though they’re difficult and uncomfortable, especially at first.  But that’s the point.  The techniques force you to argue with yourself over what you know and what you think you know.  For a good start, try identify the two elements of the design that are not getting along, and make sure they’re in direct physical contact. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, try to draw a picture of the conflict domain. Your assumptions don’t stand a chance.

With Innovation, It’s Trust But Verify.

Your best engineer walks into your office and says, “I have this idea for a new technology that could revolutionize our industry and create new markets, markets three times the size of our existing ones.” What do you do? What if, instead, it’s a lower caliber engineer that walks into your office and says those same words? Would you do anything differently? I argue you would, even though you had not heard the details in either instance. I think you’d take your best engineer at her word and let her run with it. And, I think you’d put less stock in your lesser engineer, and throw some roadblocks in the way, even though he used the same words. Why? Trust.

Innovation is largely a trust-based sport. We roll the dice on folks that have already put it on the table, and, conversely, we raise the bar on those that have not yet delivered – they have not yet earned our trust. Seems rational and reasonable – trust those who have earned it. But how did they earn your trust the first time, before they delivered? Trust.

There is no place for trust in the sport of innovation. It’s unhealthy. Ronald Reagan had it right:

Trust, but verify.

As we know, he really meant there was no place for trust in his kind of sport. Every action, every statement had to be verified. The consequences so cataclysmic, no risk could be tolerated. With innovation consequences are not as severe, but they are still substantial. A three year, multi-million (billion?) dollar innovation project that returns nothing is substantial. Why do we tolerate the risk that comes with our trust-based approach? I think it’s because we don’t think there’s a better way. But there is. What we need is some good, old-fashioned verification mixed in with our innovation.

When the engineer comes into your office and says she can reinvent your industry, what do you ask yourself? What do you want to verify? You want to know if the new idea is worth a damn, if it will work, if there are fundamental constraints in the way. But, unfortunately for you, verification requires  knowledge of the physics, and you’re no physicist. However, don’t lose hope. There are two simple tactics, non-technical tactics, to help with this verification business.

First – ask the engineers a simple question, “What conflict is eliminated with the new technology?” Good, innovative technologies eliminate fundamental, long standing conflicts. These long standing conflicts limit a technology in a way that is so fundamental engineers don’t even know they exist. When a fundamental conflict is eliminated, long held “design tradeoffs” no longer apply, and optimizing is replaced by maximizing. With optimizing, one aspect of the design is improved at the expense of another. With maximizing, both aspects of the design are improved without compromise. If the engineers cannot tell you about the conflict they’ve eliminated, your trust has not been sufficiently verified. Ask them to come back when they can answer your question.

Second – when they come back with their answer, it will be too complex to be understood, even by them. Tell them to come back when they can describe the conflict on a single page using a simple block diagram, where the blocks, labeled with everyday nouns, represent parts of the design intimately involved with the conflict, and the lines, labeled with everyday verbs, represent actions intimately involved with the conflict. If they can create a block diagram of the conflict, and it makes sense to you, your trust has been sufficiently verified. (For a post with a more detailed description of the block diagrams, click on “one page thinking” in the Category list.)

Though your engineers won’t like it at first, your two-pronged verification tactics will help them raise their game, which, in turn, will improve the risk/reward ratio of your innovation work.

Tools for innovation and breaking intellectual inertia

Everyone wants growth – but how? We know innovation is a key to growth, but how do we do it? Be creative, break the rules, think out of the box, think real hard, innovate. Those words don’t help me. What do I do differently after hearing them?

I am a process person, processes help me. Why not use a process to improve innovation? Try this: set up a meeting with your best innovators and use “process” and “innovation” in the same sentence. They’ll laugh you off as someone that doesn’t know the front of a cat from the back. Take your time to regroup after their snide comments and go back to your innovators.  This time tell them how manufacturing has greatly improved productivity and quality using formalized processes. List them – lean, Six Sigma, DFSS, and DFMA. I’m sure they’ll recognize some of the letters. Now tell them you think a formalized process can improve innovation productivity and quality. After the vapor lock and brain cramp subsides, tell them there is a proven process for improved innovation.

A process for innovation? Is this guy for real? Innovation cannot be taught or represented by a process. Innovation requires individuality of thinking. It’s a given right of innovators to approach it as they wish, kind of  like freedom of speech where any encroachment on freedom is a slippery slope to censorship and stifled thinking. A process restricts, it standardizes, it squeezes out creativity and reduces individual self worth. People are either born with the capability to innovate, or they are not. While I agree that some are better than others at creating new ideas, innovation does not have to be governed by hunch, experience and trial and error. Innovation does not have to be like buying lottery tickets. I have personal experience using a good process to help stack the odds in my favor and help me do better innovation.  One important function of the innovation process is to break intellectual inertia.

Intellectual inertia must be overcome if real, meaningful innovation is to come about. When intellectual inertia reigns, yesterday’s thinking carries the day.  Yesterday’s thinking has the momentum of a steam train puffing and bellowing down the tracks. This old train of thought can only follow a single path – the worn tracks of yesteryear, and few things are powerful enough to derail it. To misquote Einstein:

The thinking that got us into this mess is not the thinking that gets us out of it.

The notion of intellectual inertia is the opposite of  Einstein’s thinking. The intellectual inertia mantra: the thinking that worked before is the thinking that will work again.  But how to break the inertia? Read the rest of this entry »

Mike Shipulski Mike Shipulski
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