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Product Design Lessons Learned


Have you ever been involved in a product design project that suffered a cost, timing or quality setback and afterwards you heard, “XYZ project had the same issue sometime ago”?

As an Engineering leader nothing frustrated me more than this waste due to repetition of errors. As a consultant, I see this as an epidemic across organizations. Finding a solution to this problem is not trivial as several factors contribute to it-

  1. Employee turnover, leading to loss of knowledge as engineers leave the organization
  2. Lack of resources – As soon as a project is finished, engineers have to move on to the next project. There is never enough time to conduct lessons learned review
  3. Reviews conducted merely as a formality per the Engineering Gates review process
  4. Lessons learned from similar past projects are not reviewed before start of a new project
  5. Lessons learned from similar past projects are not reviewed before start of a new project
  6. Fear

Fear is perhaps the biggest reason why lessons learned reviews are ineffective.

During one of our recent engagements, the team attributed every lesson learned to an error by some other department in the organization. We never heard engineers state anything that they could themselves have performed better! Meaningful & actionable lessons cannot emerge in a culture, where fear of being reprimanded for failure prevents an open discussion about errors & how to prevent them in future.

Some techniques that I used as the Director of Engineering & later as a consultant, to ensure lessons learned reviews are effective and provide ROI, are summarized below:

  1. Getting engineers to experience benefits from conducting reviews and reviewing past lessons learned to reduce errors on their projects, so that the process does not have to be “enforced” but is “embraced”
  2. Adoption of Lean Product Design methodologies
  3. Providing multiple forums for sharing lessons learned, such as meetings, searchable knowledge database using software tool; monthly newsletter
  4. Effective facilitation of these sessions using generative questions. E.g. A simple re-framing of a question, “Why did the component fail?” (Likely to result in defensiveness and finger pointing) with “How can the component be made better?” can diffuse the tension & negativity and address the issue in a positive manner
  5. Strong emphasis from senior leadership to ensure:
  • Performance appraisal process is tied to effective completion of lessons learned
  • Fear & finger pointing is minimized by focusing on processes instead of punishing people

Answering key questions - Who should attend? How often to conduct this review for a project? What insightful questions to ask? How to take detailed notes and monitor quality of lessons compiled? How & who will track and complete action items required to correct issues identified? How to close the loop and determine ROI on conducting these reviews?

As engineering product design leaders, do you measure how many repeat issues your product design process is experiencing? Or the cost due to these issues? Do you have an effective lessons learned review process? What has worked well for you in minimizing repeat mistakes and making the product design process robust?