Optimizing Product Development: An Agreed Upon Gating Process

In the too recent past I worked with a company who operated in stovepipes.  Although the had a talented executive leadership team they didn’t have in place a gating process that forced them to validate each project against its return on investment and marketability at each gate.  Once a project was approved the project management and product development organization set off to design and produce the project.  Each organization operated autonomously with little shared communication.  As a result the company produced a beautiful new jet that met all of the operational requirements at a cost that the market wouldn’t support.  After years of effort and millions of dollars the company declared bankruptcy and their assets were purchased by their competitors.

A agreed upon gating process that validates the progress of the project, whether it is meeting the functional requirements, and checks in on the competitive environment can go a long way toward mitigating the risk associated with long-term projects.

A gating process includes a set of project phases with a gate at the end of each phase.  What occurs during each phase and the criteria for going through each gate typically varies by the size or complexity of the project.

It has been argued that processes that support rapid deployment and multiple iterations are more effective for some product development environments.  I have found that those processes are indeed congruent with a gating process as long as the iterations occur within the boundaries of a gate.

Depending upon what business we’re in, our phases and gates will be different, but the following are often found, regardless of industry.  

  • Discovery Phase 

The Discovery Phase begins when some event occurs that is of interest to the company or someone in the company.  It could be that notice has been received by Sales that a request for proposal is being released for a product or service offered by the company.  Perhaps Engineering has discovered a new method of attaching Part A to Part B that has the potential to increase the strength of the finished product.  It might be that the organization has grown to the extent that Human Resources wants to review and analyze available Human Resource Support systems because the current system no longer supports the organization.

The sponsoring department assembles a charter, preliminary business case, or some type of predefined document describing what they want to explore and why, who they need to help explore it, and how it supports the organization’s strategic objectives or solves an operational issue.  They include their assessment of the score the project would receive when ranked against the weighted set of criteria.

They get on the agenda for the next Governance Meeting and present the project to the Governance Team.  If the resources are available and there is nothing ranked higher, they receive approval for a specific amount of time and capital to complete the Discovery Phase.

The Discovery Team completes their assessment, their estimate of the Return on Investment and Rate of Return, and determines what resources and funding will be needed, for how long for the Concept Phase.  This will be presented to the Governance Team who either closes the project, approves it to go through the gate to the Concept Phase, or places it on hold and inactive until resources are available. 

  • Concept Phase 

The Discovery Phase and Concept Phase are often combined for small projects, projects of short duration, or initiatives that require acknowledgement to an outside party by a certain time that the company will be participating in them.

The Project Team updates the project charter adding the purpose of the team, how they will function, and a clear definition of the project scope.

The team develops a business case that should include a competitive analysis, if appropriate, and a high level project plan for the project.   The business case should also include a model or description of the services to be provided and the performance specifications that must be met.  

  • Design Phase 

The design for the product or service and the plan for how it will be tested is completed during this phase.  Definition of the training required and how it will  be delivered to operate the product or use the service is also designed.

During this phase building a prototype of the product or service allows the design team to test those elements of the design that currently exist and defines features that need further design.

Outside suppliers for products or services are identified and design agreements are put in place.  An engineering or design bill of materials is established to insure all required parts are procured and accounted for.

Preliminary facility requirements are identified and options considered.

The schedule continues to mature throughout this phase as the detailed steps for development, through the end of the project are further defined.

The team prepares for and conducts a preliminary design review with the Governance Team to confirm the preliminary design will meet the performance requirements and achieve the return on investment.

Governance Team members representing functional areas confirm that their organizations are aligned with the effort.

If the design review shows the team has completed all design requirements, there are resources available for development, there is every expectation the return on investment is achievable, the progress moves through the gate to the Development Phase. 

  • Development Phase 

During this phase, development of the product or service is completed and a set of operational test articles are constructed and tested.

The product or service documentation is completed. Any outside certification authorities are provided with the required documentation and test results.

Additional supplier agreements or modifications to existing agreements are executed and product lead times are researched.  The development bill of materials is updated.

Preliminary production planning and the basic production line layout is completed.  Facility requirements are fully completed.  Tooling required for production is designed, fabricated, and installed.

Any training required is identified, and developed, if necessary.  Training that can be conducted during this phase is completed.

The team prepares for and conducts the critical design review with Governance Team representatives to confirm the product or service meets the performance requirements.

Governance Team members representing functional areas confirm that their organizations are aligned with the effort and prepared to support the product. 

  • Pilot Phase

The Pilot Phase is most applicable to products and services who will be transitioning from a test environment to a production environment.

Although the project team will have included functional representation from manufacturing and/or operations, the Pilot Phase is the opportunity for the organization responsible for delivering the final product or service to the customer validates the final design and finalizes the necessary replicable processes and procedures.

The manufacturing planning for the production build includes a description of every step in the process and what parts or components are needed for each step.  From this the production schedule is finalized.

This is also the phase where the development bill of materials transitions to a production bill of material that includes lead times for every purchased part or service.

The pilot articles  can be produced as a stall build or in a  model office, or can use the actual production line or initial site.

As the pilot proceeds, team members accountable for  performing the functions in a production environment  identify issues with the build, training, and documentation and correct them prior to the transition to production.

At the completion of the Pilot Phase and based upon the results of the Pilot, project team members responsible for sales, marketing, customer service, and aftermarket support, finalize their processes and prepare to introduce the product to the marketplace.

  • Production/Implementation Phase 

In the Production/Implementation Phase the product or service begins the process of bringing production or operations up to rate.  Personnel and parts are in place to support productions.  Opportunities are sought to smooth out production as experience is gained.

Any tooling changes or additional tooling that is required is ordered or fabricated.  Standard operating procedures are brought up to date and communicated.  Final training is completed.

Plans and resources are put in place to address any customer issues and collect customer feedback.

Metrics are in place and reviewed on a regular basis to monitor production/operations.

  • Commercialization Phase

Most gating processes do not include a Commercialization Phase, and until the opportunities of this Phase were pointed out by a wise client, I’d never considered how beneficial it could be.

In most organizations, once the project is in production, the project team proceeds immediately to the Close Out Phase, collects lessons learned and is released back to their department or deployed onto another project.  As a result, improvements that could be identified and made by the experienced cross-functional team for the product or service they just completed, are delayed or never happen at all.

One purpose of this phase is to correct any problems causing production issues, operational errors, or work-arounds, and implement any obvious production or operational improvements.

A second purpose of this phase is to ensure that the product is fully integrated into the set of products the organization offers.

The third purpose of this phase is to decompose the product into its components and insert the components into the organization’s design, product, and documentation libraries.

This last purpose, when practiced, is what allows organizations to further reduce their product development time and become increasingly more competitive, yet is often overlooked, particularly in organizations that have grown through acquisition.

  • Close Out Phase

The Close-Out Phase is used to validate whether the project met its objectives in terms of performance, cost, schedule, and marketability.

Plans to address any remaining risks should be established and the results monitored as part of normal operations from this point forward.

The project team should participate in a lessons learned session and use those learnings to update processes and methods to allow the organization the benefits of those lessons learned.

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in early 2017.

Published by Leah Ward-Lee

Leah Ward-Lee, the author of "$1,000 Start-Ups", is a serial micro-entrepreneur. She opened her first business at ten after lobbying for and receiving a shoe shine kit for Christmas. She pulled her wagon through the neighborhood, going door-to-door, offering to shine her neighbor’s shoes for twenty-five cents a pair. Once her wagon was full, she took the shoes home and polished them. Unfortunately that business was short-lived. She hadn’t tagged the shoes and couldn’t remember whose shoes were whose, so her dad went with her to retrace the route until every pair was returned. Since then she’s had businesses developing and teaching college courses, instructing aerobic classes, owning half a plane that was rented to a flight and maintenance school, and renting homes. She’s also owned a consignment store, a gift shop, a gift basket business, a consulting firm, hosted The Executive Toolbox (a weekly radio show), and a publishing company. She also spent twenty years in the US Army, served as the Chief Information and Technical Officer for two major insurance companies, and has a second career as a management consultant. Leah resides in Dallas, TX and on Amelia Island with Sammy and Goliath, her two rescue dogs.


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