Eliminate Waste in the Front End of Innovation

The front end of innovation (FEI), where researchers explore innovative new product concepts, is crucial to feeding a company’s entire product development effort with profitable new opportunities. Yet despite its importance, researchers working in the FEI often encounter situations where their effort is wasted.  Contrary to common wisdom, the waste is caused by the same processes (such as Stage-Gate(r)) that reduce waste later in the product development.

In a recent paper published in Food Technology, Dr. Carla Kuesten and I look at typical examples of waste in consumer product research and explain an exploratory process designed to avoid such waste. In stark contrast to sequential processes, the exploratory process is based on loose planning, iterations and loop-backs.  Although the paper deals specifically with examples from consumer products, the ideas can be applied to any discipline.

Kuesten-Farnbach iterations

An exploratory Process

Sequential development processes seek to eliminate waste by thoroughly planning a project before spending serious money on it.  That may work when the project doesn’t involve innovation, but it creates waste in the FEI because researchers can’t anticipate where they will make critical discoveries. A critical discovery in a later stage will force researchers to re-do previous work and delay the schedule.

Rather than carefully planning the research project in sequential stages, an exploratory process works in short iterations, intentionally looping back through activities.  At each iteration, researchers adapt to previous discoveries, speculate about remaining uncertainties, and plan the next iteration to reduce the most critical ones.  The process closes in one of two ways:  by launching a development project if no major uncertainties remain, or by abandoning the project if the value hypothesis becomes untenable.

As an example, a team researching a formulation for a functional snack product (one that keeps you feeling full longer) set a 3-hour satiety goal early in the project.  They invested significant effort to reach that goal, only to find that three hours of satiety was incompatible with a superior sensory experienc
The waste was caused by prematurely specifying the 3-hour satiety goal.  An iterative process with a broader goal of “good taste with superior satiety” would have allowed the team to iterate through different taste/satiety combinations to arrive more quickly at a successful formulation.e (taste and texture).  In the end, they discovered that only two hours of satiety would be competitive as long as the product tasted good.

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