Questions from the Field #1: Lean Engineering

We received several good questions from a manager of System and Process Improvement attempting to do kaizen in engineering. She saw the tremendous wastes (Lean opportunities) in the engineering department, but was having limited success getting the engineers to adopt Lean thinking. Some of here challenges include:
Question #1: How do we measure what is perceived “un-measurable”, such as the amount of time to design or research where there are many variables?
First, there is very little that is truly “un-measurable”. Design and research activities can certainly be measured by tools such as a stop watch, video, spaghetti diagram, etc.
The real question here is how to measure activities like these that are difficult to measure. These engineering processes may be iterative (happening over and over again), discontinuous, and invisible, as it is often being done inside the mind.
For iterative processes, consider each iteration to be ‘rework’ or the result of not having the right information, specifications, test results, etc. on the few iterations. Ask how the number of iterations can be reduced to get to a final design quicker. Measure each iteration and identify where value is being added and where it is simply being ‘reworked’. Identify and kaizen the root causes of non value-added iterations.
For dis-continuous processes, capture each segment of the process when it is happening. Look for kaizen opportunities at hand-off points. Look for ways to connect the processes and implement one-piece flow of design. Identify and kaizen the reasons that process can not be flowed one at a time continuously. When you flow the work, iterations will happen quicker with better quality.
For work being done inside the mind – this is a challenge – make the work visual. Determine a Takt time, and periodically stop to make the output visual for the downstream process (the customer). This could take the form of a rough sketch, a spec sheet, a research brief, etc. By breaking the ‘work in the mind’ into smaller, more visible pieces it allows downstream pull by the customer – resulting in better flow.
As with all improvement efforts, it helps to define the goal first before measuring and analyzing. What is the output of the design or research process? What is the desired end product, and how much time should it take to achieve this? What are the steps involved in creating the design or research output? Once the ‘ideal state’ is defined, it is easier to see the waste and begin kaizen.