What does ‘right first time’ mean in an R&D environment?

Decades that have passed since anchoring principles of Lean have been published, reworded and republished, from Deming, Liker and others. Lean tools and their results abound, but Lean behaviors evidencing belief in these principles are still somewhat lacking. The notion of creating more open and innovative cultures by removing fear and blame, not unique to the Lean way of thinking but central to it, has not yet seen wide adoption. Perhaps we are too afraid to say to our leaders, “We are still afraid! Please remove the fear!”

Management by going to see for yourself on the gemba at some intra-daily frequency is also recognized as important but plans to remove distance between the towers where the executives sit and the place where value is created for the customer, are not high priority.
Even thoseleaders enlightened to such problems too often fail to ask why repeatedly, seek broad consensus and pursue multiple possible countermeasures, preferring to jump to solutions, decide with alacrity and execute like worried molasses.

So it was refreshing last week to hear an application-focused question about Lean principles during an exchange with senior change leaders within a global industrial conglomerate 5-6 years on the Lean path. We were having a discussion about how to make sure Lean behaviors were kept central to the next phase of planned coaching activities, when one person felt safe enough to admit their ignorance.

“How do we embody ‘right first time’ in an R&D environment?”

No doubt this had come up in conversation in the recent past with an R&D leader. Perhaps the change leader had either been stumped or had provided an unsatisfactory answer. It is quite common within industrial companies expanding continuous improvement beyond their core supply chain processes to meet resistance from marketing, sales, engineering, finance and various other “we are not production” people who take affront when born-in-the-factory Lean principles tread with muddy boots into the carpeted areas. “You don’t understand, we don’t do the same thing day after day…” is typically heard at some point in that discussion.

In order to minimize the arguing about whether factory-born Lean tools will or will not apply in the development and innovation world, effective change leaders begin by building mutual understanding of the principles and deep assumptions about customer expectations, value, how work is done across a system, how processes and standards are set, how problem are solved, and so forth. It was during such a process where “We are an R&D group, ‘right first time’ does not apply to us,” raised its head.

We worked through how he would answer such a question in the future, keeping in mind that “right” for an R&D process must be defined by that team and their so-called customer, even if that was only a vague notion of learning something new, delivering a prototype, or creating something of value 15% of the time.

Getting the R&D process “right first time” means being able to say yes across this cycle of learning…

– Have we applied the lessons learned from the most recent round of R&D activity to this round?
– Did we begin with a well thought out plan, hypothesis or problem statement?
– Did we follow this plan?
– Did the plan achieve the results we expected?
– Did we learn something about our general process for doing R&D?

Even if the answer is “no” to any of these, we agreed, it was important that the R&D team saw the importance of asking why this was so and applying their smarts to the R&D processes themselves. What stopped you from doing the work you wanted to do? How can we prevent that in the future? And so forth. This is the type of thinking that resulted in what we called Lean. Like many important discoveries that happen in a lab, it was only an accident that Lean was born in the factory.


  1. Anonymous

    December 10, 2013 - 5:51 am

    Thinking of this in the context of two giant technology companies, Google and Apple. Their R&D cycles are very different. Google is “fail often, fail fast” and Apple is “Intuitive and satisfy a want the customer did not know they had.” In both cases, their R&D environment would say “yes” to the questions posed, even if the result to the consumer is different. Perhaps R&D needs to first decide what type of process they are comfortable with and then reinforce with the post-mortem questions.

  2. Nancy Kress

    December 12, 2013 - 1:26 pm

    It was chilling to read the first paragraph of this post. I am too afraid of my leaders with good reason. Worst case: they don’t remove the fear, they remove me!
    Our current economic environment creates a perfect situation for command and control leaders, ruling with a carrot and stick approach.

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