Phase and Gate Structure for New Product Development

In previous articles we defined an element of lean as a phase and gate structure for new product development.  This assumes a waterfall approach to the project (versus agile product development).

A new product life cycle phase gate structure might entail, for example: “Definition, Concept, Design, Verification, Qualification, Production and End-of-Life”.  (Your organization might decide on different phase names.)

There’s an apparent contradiction in using a waterfall project approach and calling it lean project management, however.  A goal of any lean process is to work toward ‘single piece’ or continuous flow: agile product development is more like ‘single piece flow’ of information, versus waterfall which is more like ‘batch processing’ of information.

Even so, let’s explore how a waterfall phase-gate structure for new product development can enable a lean approach for certain types of projects or project management organizations:

  1. Enables Project Approval – enables the project sponsor(s) or steering committee to prevent rogue projects from advancing further and better align resources to the most important (approved) projects.
  2. Enables Project Planning – the established structure helps resources ‘speak the same language’ about where the project is at, and standardize a work breakdown structure (WBS) according to the project phases.  Also, project planning can be ‘goal driven’ whereby interim goals (completion of a given phase) can be planned and executed.  High-level schedule compliance can also be monitored by establishing phase gate schedules and triggering interim reviews if a gate schedule is missed.
  3. Enables Resource Management – given an established sequence of phases, skill sets can be assigned according to the structure.  With several projects and high-level planning using a phase-gate structure, critical organizational skill set gaps can be identified.  (Alignment of resources and reducing bottlenecks is a significant enabler of establishing and overall lean enterprise.)
  4. Enables Project Governance – a gate review upon the completion of a phase allows the steering committee to review the project quality, completeness of the phase exited, and ensure sponsorship support for the (next phase) plan.  Governance could also include what the project team needs to be successful considering project constraints of cost, time and scope.  This is also be an effective ‘escalation path’ which prevents projects from languishing.

Remember that we’re investing work-effort into project governance to enable more valuable projects to be completed faster.  This is also a cultural enabler; project governance can enable leadership and empower and recognize teamwork.

Also note the above enablers don’t necessarily slow things down.  If constraints prohibit agile product development processes, scrum or sprints might still be employed where possible (ie a hybrid model).

Alternatively, project sponsors may choose to limit risk with strict governance and prevent the team from moving into the next development phase until the current phase is complete.  This may slow things down, of course, but reduce risk….(speed vs. risk).

Meanwhile, even if you have an existing phase and gate framework, there are likely many opportunities to take advantage of the above enablers and improve overall project/program management for your enterprise.