October 2

Creating a Lean Engineering Design Process

Companies around the world are increasingly becoming aware of the competitive advantage they can achieve by being able to manage the engineering design process successfully, but so far, very few of them are able to do this. Developing an organization with a lean engineering design process that sustainably delivers the correct products on schedule is not only a competitive advantage, but a huge leg up on the competition.

For a long time, companies and scientists have struggled to find a way to describe a successful approach to engineering management as they have to manufacturing processes. Lean engineering is a relatively new invention, and finding a way to describe it in a way that was applicable to business originally came as my personal breakthrough in the scientific community.

I wrote the following article to provide an actionable strategy for implementing lean engineering principles into any organization that is looking to develop operational excellence, and I do hope you find it valuable.

engineering design process

Why attempts at lean engineering management fail

With the absence of lean engineering, the engineering design process of a new product is a very difficult process to manage effectively because the process itself is iterative and revolves around sharing incomplete information. As a result, it is very common for the design process in otherwise successful companies to be wasteful, being completed over schedule and over budget.

The concept of lean manufacturing has for a long time been considered to be the gold standard in manufacturing efficiency, and many organizations believe that achieving excellence in engineering management means the application of these same strategies to the engineering design process. The reason so few companies are able to implement lean engineering principles into their engineering design process is that although the principles of lean philosophy still apply, the actual methods and tools of lean manufacturing is unsuited to a process that isn’t sequential.

In other words, in addition to developing an organization that has a sound approach to developing lean leadership principles and business excellence, achieving lean engineering means implementing new tools adapted to lean design, rather than lean manufacturing.

How to create the foundation for lean design management

Before we delve into the more specific lean design principles to establish a lean design engineering process, we should talk about the most important aspects to lean organizations; the strict focus of creating customer value. This concept is core to all lean organizations because the strict focus on customer value aligns the organization’s efforts such that a minimum of resources are spent on wasteful efforts.

This is just as important in lean engineering management as it is in any other part of a lean organization. You might think the concept of focusing on customer value is self-evident until you realize the extent to which truly lean design thinking utilizes this concept.

As an illustration, consider the case of Yuiji Yokoya, the chief engineer of the major redesign that was the 2004 Toyota Sienna. During the initial design process of the Sienna, Yuiji travelled to North America and drove through all 50 of the United States, in addition to all parts of Canada and Mexico. The following excerpt from “Designing the Future” gives an insight into how the trip helped him deeply relate to the customer’s experiences:

“He studied customers outside Home Depot as they struggled to fit plywood sheets into rear openings that were slightly too narrow. He experienced firsthand the buffeting wind on the high-profile van as he drove across the Plains. He saw the need for cup holders for each passenger on long trips (he also witnessed the importance of keeping children occupied on those long rides).”

Lean engineering starts with establishing a deep understanding of the needs, problems and experiences of the customer, which must permeate the entire design process. In order to ensure that customer value is preserved, the design management team starts with creating key performance goals for the end product that will realize the most important customer requirements for the product. These key performance metrics will serve as the guiding decision criteria for all potential solutions during the design process.

lean design management
Developing a thorough understanding of how the customer makes buying decisions is fundamental to lean design management

The lean design methodology to enable lean engineering

After having established a thorough understanding of the experiences and needs of the customer, it is time to implement the lean design principles that enable lean engineering management.

  1. Thoroughness in decision-making (concept-evaluation)

One of the key lean design principles is thoroughness in decision-making. After having established key performance metrics based on customer requirements, the next step for the design team is to generate a large set of potential solutions.. In keeping with the lean principle of experimenting to prove or disprove a hypothesis as quickly as possible, the idea with this approach is to organically arrive at the best potential solution without making any false assumptions that will lead to an inferior product.

  1. Compatibility before completion (developing with the goal of creating functional prototypes, not complete designs)

In order for this approach to work, it is key that engineering management stresses the concept of compatibility before completion. In order to minimize waste, potential designs are only developed to the least finished degree where they can be compared to other designs. During the comparisons, the least performing designs are progressively excluded in favor of the most promising solutions.

  1. Trade-off curves (managing information and decision-making processes)

The primary way to compare potential designs during this process is using trade-off curves. Engineering is the art of making compromises, and this section deals with how to choose the design that makes the best compromise between all key performance metrics to deliver customer value. Trade-off curves are generated from simulations or actual tests of prototypes that measure the performance of different prototypes according to the key performance metrics. By visualizing the performance according to key performance metrics, the engineering team can easily evaluate how the different designs compromise on customer value, and can make empirical conclusions as to which design offers the most amount of potential value.

engineering management
Trade-off curves can be an effective way to managing how information is managed in design decisions
  1. Set-based design (how the aspects of lean engineering comes together)

This lean design process is often referred to as “Set-based-design”. Set-based-design separates itself from the traditional approach of Point-based-design, in that it starts by establishing all potential solutions instead of starting at one presumed best solution and iterating towards a final design. By only developing concepts to the degree where they can be compared (completion before compatability) and evaluated using the key performance metrics (trade off curves), set-based-design creates an engineering design process that organically progresses towards the best design according to what will create the most customer value.

The Set-Based design approach creates a process that organically selects the best solution based on customer preferences

Creating a systematic engineering design process that enable lean engineering

The cornerstone of lean process improvement is to develop standardized frameworks and to use these frameworks as a basis for continuous improvement by iterating from experience. This is relevant for creating a framework for a lean engineering design process too, but with one important caveat.

The concept of “Fixed vs Flexible” deals with that fact that not all processes are meant to be standardized, and this is especially important for design. The issue of creating a structure in any organization is not a matter of finding ways to structure as much as possible, but finding the right level of structure for the organization. If this is done correctly, the organization will predictably reach its goals without compromising its autonomy to find the best solutions possible. This is especially important in design due to the fact that design is the most creative branch in most organizations, and creating more structure than necessary will compromise the organization’s capability to reach the best designs possible.

The key to developing a lean engineering design process that has the right level of structure is to seek to only implement structure that enables work. This will inevitably vary significantly depending on the organization, but there are a couple of best-practice tools that the engineering design management in any organization should evaluate whether or not to implement.

Firstly, having design reviews at specific milestones during the engineering design process can be a great tool for team learning and feedback. That being said, many organizations approach design reviews as a power-point exercise, which inevitably degrades the quality of what one can hope to achieve with the reviews. In order to combat this one can implement a strict focus on prototype showcases and hosting the design reviews at the places where the manufacturing work that enables the creation of prototypes.

After-action reports are also a great tool for any learning organization. Originally developed by the US Army, conducting after-action reviews can be as simple as making it apart of the design process to ask a couple of questions, for example

  • What did we set out to do?
  • What actually happened?
  • What is the gap?
  • Why did the gap occur?
    • Ask 5 why’s for why the gap occurred.

Developing a lean engineering framework for your organization is no easy exercise, but it can make your products the most dominant solutions in your industry. If you learned something valuable from the article and want to learn more about how you can develop your organization into an industry leader, feel free to read more about our leadership consulting services.


engineering design process, engineering management, lean design, lean engineering

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