Business associates reviewing notes together in a meeting.

Beware the One-Trick Pony

January 11, 2017
Pictured Here: Al Landers, Vice President of R&D

Pictured Here: Al Landers

Al Landers had just put his career on the line. As Director of R&D at Huber Engineered Woods, he was under constant pressure from top management to develop new and diverse products – the CEO often reminding him with equal parts advice and warning the pitfalls of becoming a one-trick pony. Al’s team was relatively green, needing clear direction, and he believed strongly enough in SBTI‘s design methodology to stake his career on Huber‘s investment in it. And along with it, his legacy as hero or scapegoat hanging in the balance….

Background & Symptoms

 At the time Huber had been enjoying the success of one of its fairly new oriented strand board (OSB) products for residential construction. Yet, realizing that new products become old products within a blink of an eye, the C-suite had given Al and Co. strict marching orders to continue developing more new products.  “Our team had the resources and the ideas, but we still did not really know how to commercialize them, how to make it all happen,“ he said. A good motivator, Al still needed to provide his team with more than just inspiration. “I was looking for a discipline for developing new products on a regular basis.  I was familiar with Six Sigma and was a believer in it for helping processes. I just wished there was something like it for R&D,“ he said.

Attending a conference soon thereafter, Al came upon a new tool – Design For Six Sigma (DFSS) – specifically for developing new products, and presented it to the upper management. Huber had actually contracted with SBTI previously and was familiar with Six Sigma.  After some initial pushback from the higher-ups, Al went directly to the President of the division to plead his case. “I really wanted to bring in DFSS and told him if it did not work I would stake my career on it,“ he recalled. Looking back with head-shaking exasperation, “I walked out of his office thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what have I just done here?‘“

Root Causes

Inplementing DFSS came with its fair share of challenges and unearthed some shortcomings within the company. On the one hand, it truly brought marketing and research people together for the first time. “One of our fundamental problems was these two groups just did not communicate well together. Through DFSS we put together a disciplined — not bearucratic – way for us to develop brand new products,“ he pointed out.

Yet on the other hand, such discipline was predictably met with some resistance.

“We were rather loosey goosey in our ways, so to ask people to start using some discipline made some colleagues very uncomfortable. One marketing manager asked me if I really wanted him to document things and I really did,“ he said. “Again, it was not a bureaucratic situation but more a discipline to make sure we were going through the right steps.“

There were also big picture issues.  A commodity mind set meant the staff was quite content just cranking out the current products. And understandably so – they were working well for customers and making the company good money. In short,  Al’s team was up against their own version of The Innovator’s Dilemma – a classic bit of resistence,  in this case to introducing new products – from virtually every angle of the company.

For example,  those on the plant floor were somewhat reluctant to change their routine, their normal process to incorporate trials for new products. More interested in the “now“, the sales force was already raking in good commissions on current models, and to some degree the finance guys dubiously viewed Al’s efforts, in principle seeing new products in their early stages as being less cost effective than established products.

“We were in an interesting situation because we were interfacing with all the different parts of the organization –  marketing, sales, operations and so on — yet we were the ones accountable for making it work, so it was definitely a challenge for us,“ Al said. “What SBTI did was help us with the tools to be able to interface with those departments and come up with new ideas and how to take those ideas and turn them into products.“

Rallying Call to Action

One of the primary ways his team won colleagues over was by following the Design for Six Sigma roadmap and utilizing its tools. “From there we were able to show with data and solid work the product would be successful, and we could manufacture it at the right cost,“ he said. “It also helped us to understand our customer requirements — the voice of the customer — and that the customer really did want a product like this. There was still some initial push back from within.“

One of the main issues in the plant was inserting the new products in the current process. “At first we just did not have a way to apply these and had to develop a brand new way to incorporate them into the manufacturing cycle and make it part of our current process,“ Al said.

Trial and Error

One noteworthy issue along the way proved to be sealing the oriented strand board on the house so that wind, humidity and rain could not get in. More specifically, the joints on the panels needed to be sealed so the team of developers put house wrap directly on each panel, resulting in one product that both served as house wrap and was still structural. “Solving that was almost as hard as developing the product itself!“ Al lamented. “It that took us a while to develop a system for wrapping the product and for our guys to then get comfortable with that.“

After that came the true test – how would the customer embrace the new products? “We had a few sales guys who were excited about it.  We offered free trials and showed a lot of examples, gave a fair amount of guarantees,“ Al explained. “The construction industry is very conservative.“  Huber looked for lead users, builders who wanted to be innovative, and partnered with them,  providing a great deal of support.  By Year No. 2 things started to pick up. After that, it began to snowball!

Results

The new DFSS-driven process was applied to a platform of 10 to 20 overall products and revolutionized new product development at Huber.  Skyrocking with sales, the ZIP System stood head and shoulders above the other products on the platform and proved to be the blockbuster item with staying power and the longest trajectory.  Thanks to Al’s team‘s achievements over a six-to-seven-year period at Huber:

  1. The ratio of new products less then five years old to products over five years old increased dramatically
  1. Top line growth increased dramatically
  1. Sales numbers increased steadily

Legacy

 On a personal note, after the success of the DFSS-driven process and resulting products, Al was promoted from Director to Vice President of R&D. The forewarnings of one-trick ponies had been replaced with congratulations on these exceptional achievements by his CEO.  And even today,  while driving down the street in cities across the country, Al smiles to himself as he notices some of the initial products his team developed using DFSS still being used on residential construction sites.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *