Twenty years ago the General Motors’ product development process was a mess. The GM engineers were doing what the executives told them to do or what they could do without executive veto. The executives based their decisions on their personal experience and their gut instincts. I remember suggesting to a development team that they take the executives out to visit competitors’ dealerships. I was told that, “We don’t do that around here. We bring the cars to the executives and they only drive GM cars.”
GM product planning changed in the 1990’s when Vince Barabba was hired to direct market research. Vince became involved in product planning indirectly. He said he had to understand how product decisions were made in order to know what market research to do. That’s when GM’s product planning became a “meeting of the minds.”
I had the good fortune to be involved in coaching several development teams during the transformation. My favorite product planning projects were the Corvette, the full-sized pick up truck, and the Cadillac line. All these products made major changes in direction as a result of the work of the product development teams during that period.
In 2000, I was asked to talk about my product design experience for a National Research Council working group. The group was investigating the linkage between decision making and product design. I put together a presentation about the design of the fifth generation Corvette. I have given the presentation to Stanford graduate students annually for almost 15 years. The presentation is now available on Slideshare. See Design of a New Corvette.
The process used on the C5 Corvette and the Silverado Pickup in the 1990’s has become the backbone of the GM product design process. The phases of the process are framing, alternative generation, analysis, and synthesis. GM is adept at using this process to guide market research. They know what information about the customer is important for decision making and they get it, quickly and efficiently.
At GM the process was called the “dialog decision process.” Collaborative design is a better description. Extreme collaboration is required to design a product as complicated as an automobile. Vehicles use about as much technology as a fighter jet and the human interface has to be simple enough for a teenager to operate safely. Quality and manufacturability have to be designed in. I can’t think of a product that involves more people.
Good product design can’t be done without good process. A good process entails thoughtful framing; exploration of alternatives; thoughtful analysis; and synthesis. Synthesis is the key. A winning strategy is inevitably a combination of good ideas. See Decision Coaching 2.0: What is a hybrid strategy?
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