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Pursuing Perfection: Craftsmanship in Product Development

Pursuing Perfection: Craftsmanship in Product Development

Jim Morgan
July 5, 2024

FEATURE - This month’s Design Brief explores the concept of craftsmanship in design and engineering, how to cultivate it in individuals and organizations, and the benefits of pursuing excellence.


Words: Jim Morgan, Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute


This article is being repurposed fom lean.org.

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Our last two Design Briefs focused on important aspects of quality. The first was on improving quality in development, and the second addressed leveraging manufacturing know-how during development, to make things well. This Design Brief examines another, perhaps more elusive characteristic of quality, craftsmanship. We also discuss what it takes to grow the designers and engineers who can deliver it, and finally, the benefits for your organization.

So, what do I mean by craftsmanship? You can recognize craftsmanship in products and services by the precise execution of their essential characteristics. Elimination of the superfluous and the simple elegance and seamless fit of the elements that remain. These products feel, look, sound, and at times even taste well made. They are, in short, a joy to experience. However, in a world of the disposable that values speed and novelty more than enduring excellence, they are increasingly the exception, despite their exceptional value.

Why? That’s hard to say. I suspect there are several reasons unique to each organization’s circumstances. Some think it doesn’t apply to their business. Some are just too distracted with day-to-day survival to give it much thought. Still, others no doubt think craftsmanship is an archaic and esoteric concept that applies only to artisans and has little to do with today’s technology-driven development or the designers and engineers who engage in it. Or perhaps they just don’t think the benefit is worth the effort. Who am I to say they are wrong?

But there are a couple of things you may still wish to consider. Product development remains an inherently creative endeavor dependent on the capabilities and motivation of skilled people. And despite the availability of similar technologies, individual organizations have significantly different outcomes in product development. There are, of course, many reasons for this. But one undeniable reason is the skills of the people involved and the way they approach their work every day. I believe that organizations that enable people to pursue mastery of their respective disciplines create better products, have more productive cultures, and happier people.

THERE IS NO CRAFTSMANSHIP WITHOUT CRAFTSMEN

First, please note that I use the term craftsman in a completely gender-neutral way. Becoming a craftsman is a uniquely personal decision. It requires that you commit yourself to the continuous development of your craft. Traditionally, craftsmen developed their skills through apprenticeship to those masters of the craft who came before them.  

Although we typically think of apprenticeships in skilled trades, engineers and designers should not be afraid to embrace this paradigm. I have written before about my own experience as an apprentice working for a demanding German tool maker. It was difficult and not always pleasant –- but the feeling of finally getting it right was almost intoxicating. I found the same process worked in engineering and later in leadership. The pursuit of mastery is nearly universal. For anyone considering this path, keep these principles in mind:  

  • Find an organization that will and can support your efforts. Avoid companies that refuse to invest in their people or don’t have sufficiently skilled individuals to mentor you.
  • Work in your discipline long enough to master it. Too many engineers move to other positions to improve their chances of promotion long before mastering their craft. In some cases, they trade the opportunity to create new value to become a bureaucrat.
  • Find a technical mentor. Your mentor must be someone who has done it. Someone who knows your craft better than you, who will push you, be candid with you, and support your growth. This can be difficult, especially when your boss does not do your job as well as you. Keep looking.
  • Engage with your work and challenge yourself. Pursue excellence, not mediocrity. Don’t be satisfied with just doing your job. Don’t be afraid to invest part of yourself in your work.  
  • Learn to accept criticism and react appropriately. That’s how you grow. Nobody likes it when someone “calls your baby ugly.”  When you put so much effort into something, it can be difficult to hear that what you’ve done isn’t good enough. Get over it. It’s not personal.

This journey is not easy – so be patient with yourself. Mathew Crawford sums up my thoughts well in his outstanding book Shop Class as Soul Craft. “Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility. If we fail to respond appropriately to these authoritative realities, we remain idiots. And I continue to commit acts of idiocy to this day. But less often, I think.” He reminds us that objective, physical reality is an inflexible master, and both the apprentice and journeyman should approach their task with equal parts humility and tenacity.  

A CULTURE THAT CULTIVATES EXCELLENCE

Craftsmen may be self-made, but their chances of flourishing are much better in a culture of excellence where the organization supports their growth. Organizations can dramatically improve their chances of creating a culture of excellence by investing in their people’s skill development early and often. One such organization is Toyota. Jeff Liker and I documented Toyota’s intense devotion to developing its engineers in both The Toyota Product Development System and Designing the Future, and it requires far more space than is available here. This process, starting with “the freshman project” and relying heavily on a strong journeyman–apprentice relationship, along with about 60 technical classes each engineer must take, has contributed to its industry-leading quality, profitability, and growth for many years.

Craftsmen also do better when they are surrounded by like-minded people. Today, most developers work as part of a team and operate in a larger context. Their job gets a lot more difficult when they work with people who are not committed to the same standard of excellence they are, like Robert Pirsig’s “chimpanzee” mechanics in his book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. These people have no connection to the work. No emotional or intellectual investment. It’s just a job. Just one of these folks, especially in an influential position, can hold a lot of good people back. As the old saying goes, “You must change the people, or you must change the people.”  

One such example goes back to my days at Ford. We had started on our improved craftsmanship journey and were at what I considered a tipping point. In the middle of a particularly difficult exchange about product standards, one very frustrated long-time Ford manager shouted, “We will not sell one more damn car because of these tougher standards!” He was wrong. Improved body craftsmanship was one of the most noted improvements in our new products. But more importantly, that was not the point. The point was to set a standard of excellence – not just when it was convenient, but during our most challenging times. The manager in question took early retirement soon after, and it was like a breadth of fresh air for his organization.

THE MATRIX ORGANIZATION

A word about the much-maligned matrix organization. The matrix, as practiced by Toyota and others, allows strong functional organizations to develop craftsmen within each critical discipline while the horizontal program side, led by the chief engineer, harnesses this incredible capability in service of the customer and the problem to be solved. When operating at its best, the program side focuses on creating great products for your customers, while the functional side is responsible for creating great people capable of delivering the vision.  

THE CHALLENGE – CHOOSING EXCELLENCE

This may be the toughest challenge we have yet leveled in a Design Brief. Not only is it difficult at an individual level, but creating a truly crafted product for your customer requires everyone in the organization to make this journey together. Designers, engineers, manufacturing specialists, and everyone engaged in the value stream must embrace the vision of excellence. And that creates massive pressure and stress for everyone –- especially for leaders. It can seem so much easier to settle for mediocrity. It is a decision and commitment that must be made both at an individual and organizational level.

But if you choose excellence and decide to be part of a team in pursuit of perfection, you will not only create truly exceptional products but also have one of your best professional experiences. I hope you do.

In this month’s Design Brief:

  • Dave Leone, Senior Director of Dimensional Control, and Mark Weaver, Technical Director of Craftsmanship at GE Appliances, share how the company has transformed its product development process using digital technologies.
  • Steve Shoemaker, a former global engineering leader at Caterpillar, explains the importance of developing and retaining highly skilled engineers.
  • Software pioneer Robert Martin discusses the industry’s challenges and how “software craftsmanship” can help solve them.

Read it here


THE AUTHOR

James Morgan, PhD is a Senior Advisor at the Lean Enterprise Institute

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