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How software can revolutionize stage-gate development

If you work in product development, it’s a safe bet that you’ve heard of stage-gate processes. What you may find surprising is that it has been around since the 1940’s, and that it has inspired several other methodologies that thrive today. Improved software is creating new ideas about how a stage-gate process can be managed to not only improve the product in question, but also improve the process for building said product. It’s closed-loop, proactive thinking taken to another level.

A stage-gate process (also known as the phase-gate model) divides product development into stages, each of which is separated by a gate. Once a phase ends and a gate is reached, the product development group meets to discuss whether the previous stage was completed by looking at the deliverables, which are standardized for each gate. Next, they discuss whether the project still appears as though it will provide value to the business. From there, a manager or committee decides whether to continue to the next phase, end the project, wait, or recycle. If they move ahead, they agree on the deliverables for the next stage, as well as a goal date for completion.

How can software be used to improve each of these stage-gate steps?

Let’s say that one company uses a stage-gate process, but depends solely on the manager to track the progress of each stage and its many sub-projects and small tasks. This company has a unique NPI (new product development) workflow, which is familiar to the upper-level employees, but is still a little strange to the younger, newer hires. Those managers with tribal knowledge can track the entire process via an Excel spreadsheet, but it’s not available to the rest of the key NPI players due to “security” concerns—only certain people can edit it. Because this information is siloed, it’s difficult for product development people to understand what to prioritize - particularly as deadlines toward a particular stage near.

When filing all the deliverables for a given stage, key players simply email reports and other analysis to one manager, who must roll it all together into a single report for the gating process. Items could get lost, or mis-categorized, leading to a gate meeting that doesn’t accomplish its critical goals. Each gate is supposed to be established with clear criteria to help make the go/kill decision—if all the information isn’t available, the manager might give the go-ahead when, in fact, a product violates Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) policies. This would normally call for an immediate recycle or kill decision.

It’s not difficult to see how a mismanaged stage-gate process could cause a chain reaction that throws off an entire NPI process.

A different company, down the street, uses product lifecycle management (PLM) software with stage-gate capabilities to track and manage all their NPI activities. This company also has a somewhat unique NPI process workflow, which can be customized via the PLM system and converted into a graphical representation that anyone can understand. This ensures that everyone is always on the same page as to what activities are most important. The manager can also place all the projects, sub-projects, tasks and larger stage requirements onto a single platform that everyone can see and track. On top of that, everyone has visibility into how the NPI process is performing against the agreed-upon deadlines, which helps them prioritize which tasks are most critical.

Files and other deliverables can be attached directly onto the appropriate gate, so that meetings can go ahead with full visibility and understanding about making the right go/kill decision. By having the NPI project fully integrated into the larger PLM system, which also includes compliance information, there’s a greater likelihood that an EH&S violation will be noticed upfront. A kill order is never a great outcome, but it’s certainly better than dedicating more resources to an NPI process that will inevitably fail.

Perhaps most importantly, PLM systems can be used to provide visibility into the effectiveness of the NPI/stage-gate process itself, and help the business improve its own techniques for future endeavors. Every milestone, no matter how small, is tracked against the goals established at the very beginning of the NPI project, so that key players can discover which processes/projects were most efficient, and which could use some re-thinking during the next cycle.

Continuous improvement is a critical foundation for many businesses, and should be considered as an important “extra” stage in the NPI project. Every process can be improved upon and tweaked in order to discover the most efficient workflows and organizational strategies - which can then be input into the PLM system for the next NPI project.

That’s the power of the engaged NPI—not only does it create better products that more closely align with the overall business decisions, but it also helps strengthen the business itself.