Design for IT

By Patrick Gray

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Several years ago there was a major disconnect between designing and producing products. Engineering staff responsible for the design, and those in manufacturing and the supply chain responsible for actually building and distributing the item in massive quantities were at odds.

An excellent product that was difficult to produce did a corporation little good, since that product was costly to build, and could not be made quickly enough to satisfy significant demand. In response, design-for-manufacturability (DFM) was born.

As the name implies, product designers and engineers no longer design products in isolation, but hand-in-hand with those tasked with manufacturing them, ensuring new products can be rapidly and cheaply produced by “designing-in” manufacturing.

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Recently, thanks to people like Seth Godin, these concepts have extended beyond manufacturing to the marketing function; encouraging marketers to be involved in product design. Features and design elements that would contribute to the marketability of the product are built in during the design phase, and marketing is aware of the product well before it lands on their desk packaged and ready to ship.

This both saves costs in designing marketing programs for the new product, but also results in a higher-quality outcome, since certain design aspects of the product are actually incorporated to make it more marketable.

Now, the time has come for IT get in on the act.

Getting into the Act

IT is heavily involved in the supply chain and marketing functions of most corporations, yet it is rarely involved in new product design until an existing system can not accommodate some aspect of the new product.

Simultaneously, many new offerings are also becoming more reliant on IT. From consumer products that “phone home” for software updates and new content, to complex bundles of physical goods and services that require multiple back office transactions to ship, bill and account for.

Just as products engineered without any regard to their manufacturability are more costly, so too are products designed without IT. It is time for “Design-for-IT.”

Assuming your IT organization is transitioning from a low-cost utility (see my Avoiding the Axe column from last month) and is gradually filling its ranks with process experts, these resources can be invaluable when included early in the product design process.

Consider the usual product development process for a moment: In the best organizations, products are designed with engineers, production specialists and marketing experts. These organizations generally have the most sophisticated supply chains, and advanced analytical marketing capabilities. Producing the product and marketing it begins in isolation from IT, and it is only when an existing system can not accommodate the product that IT is brought into play, often when the product specifications have been “set in stone” and production has already begun.

At this point, the product, its features and the marketing campaign around the product have already been designed; IT must act like a band aid after the fact, rather than serve as preventative medicine.

If your IT organization has made the shift to being process-focused, and gained the support of the CEO and other corporate leaders, IT’s input can be indispensable in the product design phase. IT can help design the processes around production, ensuring that the product is both designed for manufacturability, but also designed to make maximum use of unique systems and processes built into manufacturing and the supply chain.

A process-focused IT organization can also serve as a clearinghouse between other elements of the corporation. Perhaps there is unique knowledge in purchasing that might aid the supply chain in sourcing components?

There may be existing analysis tools that could greatly aid marketing’s efforts at researching and segmenting different potential target groups for the product. From an IT perspective, any unique aspects of the product that would otherwise not “fit” within current systems and processes can be understood early in the product’s development, and appropriate changes designed and built proactively, rather than patching in yet another exception process at the last minute, when speed is more critical than building processes that will stand the test of time and offer the most effective solution in the long run.

The key to integrating IT with product design is the transition of IT from technical “engineers” to business process experts. The quickest way to derail IT involvement in product design is to jump to technical solutions during the development stage of a new product or service.

Technology has, perhaps deservedly, gained a reputation for thinking in terms of a technical solution to any problem, a modern day manifestation of the old adage that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Before attempting to get IT integrated with product design, ensure you have a team of resources with a complete process-oriented “toolkit” rather than just the hammer of technology.

By building IT into your product development process, organizational value comes from two fronts. First, cost savings are achieved by ensuring that existing systems and processes can accommodate any unique aspects of the product, and if they cannot, adequate advance notice can be provided to make efficient and beneficial modifications to the existing systems.

This saves “fire fighting” after the product is rolled out, allowing for a smoother introduction and the possibility of increasing any first mover advantage that the product may garner. Secondly, involving a group of business-focused IT resources can leverage their process knowledge, and any other unique knowledge they are familiar with that may be present in another area of the corporation.

A double whammy of both cost savings and value generation results, which will have everyone in the C-suite smiling.

Patrick Gray is the founder and President of Prevoyance Group, located in Harrison, NY. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services. Past clients include Gillette, Pitney Bowes, OfficeMax and several other Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at patrick.gray@prevoyancegroup.com.