R&D projects, including the development of new products and new technologies, are based on learning and the generation of new knowledge. Therefore, at the end of projects, it is essential for R&D teams to conduct effective post-project reviews (PPRs), in the learning is captured. However, argues Keith Goffin, in many organizations PPRs fail to identify the most important lessons, and do not disseminate the learning. R&D managers can and should take a number of steps to make PPRs an effective tool.
Every R&D team learns a unique set of lessons in solving the many problems that arise in a typical new product development (NPD), or technology, project. It is important to ensure that lessons are captured and shared, otherwise there is a risk that another project team will waste time and effort solving similar problems. However, in many companies, the motivation to conduct good post-project reviews (PPRs) is minimal. This is because NPD teams perceive PPRs as a compulsory but not important exercise (seeing them as ‘just another required tick in the box’). Similarly, other teams receiving lists of ‘lessons learned’ by email do not pay much attention to them, as both their relevance and the potential positive impact of applying them are unclear. Therefore, R&D managers face a challenge in organizing effective PPRs and sharing the knowledge from them. Based on research at leading companies, this article explains how R&D can use PPRs more effectively, stimulating the flow of lessons learned within R&D and across companies.
Knowledge generation in R&D
R&D is a knowledge-intensive activity, requiring teams to draw on both their explicit and tacit knowledge. Knowledge in R&D is typically connected with technology, customer needs, and ways of solving problems. Explicit knowledge is synonymous with information; it that can be readily identified, documented, and shared. Tacit knowledge, or know-how, is difficult to articulate, based on experience, and intimately connected to the way we carry out tasks and solve problems. Converting tacit knowledge into a form that can be shared (codification) is challenging but extremely useful.
In conducting an R&D project, teams generate a significant amount of both types of knowledge, as they solve the many technical problems that arise. Therefore, a formal review of what was learned during a project and what could benefit future projects is important and so PPRs have been widely recommended.
Lessons Learnt and Lessons Lost
In theory, a PPR is relatively simple. The R&D team meet together to discuss what went well and what they have learnt, producing a list of ‘lessons learned’ for distribution to other teams and entry into the corporate database. However, the reality is different. PPRs are the last meeting of a project team, prescribed by a company’s Stage-Gate process. They are usually held after team members have been assigned to new projects and so when interest in the previous project is low. The requirement to create a list of lessons learnt is not perceived as a priority, because R&D managers do not actively demonstrate that they think PPRs are crucial. In addition, PPRs are invariably chaired by the project leader, who is neither suitably critical nor skilled in such facilitation. Therefore, it is not surprising that the lessons which emerge are superficial.
Compounding the problem, there are two situations where lessons are lost.
Articulating challenges – firstly, any learning that is tacit is not captured because it is hard to articulate. Psychologists know that humans share tacit knowledge by using metaphors and stories, which allow us to communicate experiences that are otherwise difficult to express. Our research (see ‘THE RESEARCH’) found that stories and metaphors – powerful ways to share tacit knowledge – often emerge in PPRs. However, such metaphors and stories were not documented in the lists of lessons learned produced in PPRs. So, the discussions and learning connected to tacit knowledge was lost. For example, the stories of how product development teams dealt with the challenge of constantly evolving specifications, or how deep technical issues were solved were lost emerged in PPR discussions but nothing of that learning was captured. It seemed that NPD teams preferred to write short, easy-to-write bullet points and so implicitly concentrated on explicit knowledge.
Sharing experiences – another situation where lessons are lost is when they are distributed to other teams, either by email or via a ‘lessons learned database’. Other R&D teams do not recognize their value and how they can apply them to their projects. So, potentially valuable lessons are lost and companies need to reconsider how they can gain more value from PPRs.
Our study was conducted at seven leading companies in Germany and the UK. Each of these companies was studied closely; we inspected confidential project documentation, viewed lessons learned databases, conducted in-depth interviews of R&D personnel, and observed actual PPRs. Our rich dataset was analyzed systematically and our methodology has passed peer-review in several leading journals. In analyzing our data, we looked at both explicit and tacit knowledge. This included looking for instances where metaphors and stories were used in discussions or in interviewees’ answers, as these indicated that tacit knowledge was being shared. In addition, the strengths and limitations of each company’s approach to PPRs was analyzed.
Effective R&D learning
Across the companies studied, a number of best practices emerged as summarized in Table 1 (below). Firstly, PPRs need to be organized in ways that stimulate and transfer knowledge. It is important to demonstrate they are a priority, by having a senior R&D manager hear teams present their key lessons learned. Holding PPRs offsite can stimulate more creative thinking and one company we studied holds them in museums and art galleries. This companies PPRs are combined with a team celebratory meal, attended by the R&D Director. PPR discussions need to be moderated by an experienced facilitator, who knows the value of charts and diagrams, and the significance of stories and metaphors.
Tacit knowledge cannot be shared easily and so R&D managers need to take time here. Discussions need to focus on not only what was learnt during a project but also on whether new codification schemes can be developed to capture key technical knowledge. For example, one company we studied had their most experienced engineers reflect, developing tables of the factors to consider when plastic components were integrated into their valve control systems. This captured experience which had been gained over many years, through working on multiple design projects. The new approach to NPD called Model-based Design can be crucial, which focuses on modelling and simulation, will also help teams to articulate and capture their tacit knowledge.
To prevent complex lessons not being understood by other teams, specific team members to act as ‘knowledge brokers’ charged with transferring relevant knowledge from one team to another. Knowledge brokers focus on transferring relevant learning and project-to-project learning. Short, informal presentations by knowledge brokers and social interaction between them and different NPD teams can help disseminate knowledge. Such contacts are more effective than written reports, because interaction enables the flow of tacit knowledge.
PPRs should not be the only learning mechanism and good companies focus on learning at every opportunity, not just at the end of projects. An example of a strong learning focus in R&D is Bosch (see Box Case), where the R&D managers personally produced learning checklists based on what he learnt at PPRs. In addition, creating communities of practice within R&D is essential in large organizations.
Finally, PPRs mark the end of a project but they should be linked to kick-off meetings⸺the birth of new projects. Kick-offs are an ideal opportunity to review and disseminate existing knowledge as the team is facing fresh challenges and is keen to try new approaches. At kick-off meetings, knowledge brokers can present key insights from other projects and make the new team aware of the issues that can arise. Examining key lessons from a previous project in the context of a new project can spur new insights, encourage the reuse of effective solutions, and prevent the expensive repetition of mistakes.
Table 1: Making R&D Learning Effective
|1||Organization of PPRs||– Use a professional facilitator to stimulate the learning.
– Use diagrams and tables to stimulate and capture the learning.
– Watch for discussions that lead to the use of metaphors and stories and find ways to capture the learning from such discussions. The key stories from a project need to be recorded in a memorable way (e.g. video interviews with key team members).
– Motivate NPD teams to focus on learning and not just on achieving the project goals.
– Ensure senior management attend the summary stage of PPR meetings.
|2||Focus on new codification schemes||– Encourage R&D teams to develop new codification schemes to capture knowledge in novel ways. Diagrams and tables are often a good way to start, as are simulations.
– Key individuals in R&D often have specialist knowledge: can they develop ways in which this can be codified and this shared with colleagues?
|3||Designate knowledge brokers||– Assign appropriate team members to be ‘knowledge brokers’, disseminating key learning to other teams through presentations and informal interactions.
– Have accomplished project managers from other teams attend kick-off meetings to share advice and experience.
|4||Foster individual learning and mentoring||– Assign R&D personnel to projects based not only on their current skills but also taking account of the opportunity they will have to learn from a particular project
– Encourage and reward personal reflection including learning logs (keeping regular notes on individual learning)
– Recognize the importance of R&D personnel being active in communities of practice (within and outside the company).
– Assign mentors to less-experienced project managers.
|5||Use project kick-off meetings||– Ensure that R&D kick-off meetings focus not only on the goals of the project, but also on what can be learned from previous projects and experienced colleagues.
– Discuss what is known about the new project, what is not known, and where the knowledge needed to solve the challenges of the project may be found.
Post-project reviews offer a powerful way for R&D organizations to capture and share their knowledge. In practice, such meetings are not given a high priority and are not run effectively. R&D managers can harness the value of existing knowledge in their departments by placing more emphasis on PPRs; facilitating deeper learning and codifying key lessons. R&D management is about managing knowledge and the time and effort invested in PPRs and learning will pay dividends in future new product and technology development projects.
Box Case: Bosch Packaging Technology—Checklists as Knowledge Catalysts
The Bosch Group is famous for its automotive products and power tools. Less well known but equally successful is Bosch’s Packaging Technology Division, which serves the food, pharmaceutical, cosmetics and chemicals industries. The Bosch factory at Crailsheim (north-east of Stuttgart), designs and manufactures high-technology production line equipment for the pharmaceutical sector. These complex packaging systems automatically fill hundreds of pre-sterilized syringes, minute-for-minute. Packaging systems are significant investments for pharmaceutical companies; they typically cost several million Euro but provide highly accurate filling capabilities which ensure that demanding FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) manufacturing regulations are met.
Filling 500 pre-sterilized syringes per minute requires the syringes to be unpacked automatically, precisely filled with liquid drugs, sealed and re-packaged. The systems that fulfill these functions are based on a complex mix of mechanical and electrical engineering. Werner Mayer, Director Engineering/Development and Documentation, manages over 70 designers, recognizes the importance of generating and sharing knowledge in R&D.
Long a strong supporter of the need for post-project review, Meyer has clear views about the role of an R&D manager in managing knowledge. He says, “Don’t underestimate what the different members of the team can learn from each other in new product development, particularly at the concept stage. As an R&D manager I need to stimulate the right discussions to enable learning”. Due to the focus on learning, there are several aspects that of the Bosch Crailsheim NPD process that stand out:
– The whole culture at Bosch Packaging is one in which engineers are used to openly presenting their ideas to colleagues at ‘Design Reviews’ and receiving critical but positive feedback.
– For each NPD stage, Meyer has produced checklists which are discussed by groups of electrical, electronic and mechanical engineers. “The questions in the checklists are based on learning from previous projects and act as catalysts, stimulating focused discussions, to uncover issues before they lead to problems”, states Mayer.
– Selected sales personnel are involved in giving inputs, starting at the concept stage (“good input from sales is essential”, says Mayer).
– Everyone involved in the NPD process is required to document the philosophy behind their part of the design—so called ‘functional descriptions’. Such documents are important for pharmaceutical clients, who are eager to ensure that the manufacturing process is ‘fail-safe’ but Meyer has also found that functional descriptions were an important step in capturing the knowledge of NPD teams. “It wasn’t always easy though”, he smiles, “as good designers want to design rather than write. But now my guys do see the value of this work”.
Case based on: Goffin, K. and Mitchell, R. (2017) Innovation Management: Effective Strategy and Implementation. Palgrave, 2017, p279.
– BAXTER, D., GOFFIN, K. and SZWEJCZEWSKI, M., “Factors Supporting Knowledge Integration in Global Innovation Projects: An Exploratory Study”, Creativity and Innovation Management, Vol. 22, No. 4, 2013, pp 408-419.
– GOFFIN, K. and KONERS, U. “Tacit Knowledge, Lessons Learned and New Product Development”, Journal of Product Innovation Management, 28, No. 3, March 2011, pp300-318.
– GOFFIN, K., KONERS, U., BAXTER, D. and VAN DER HOVEN, C. “Managing Tacit Knowledge and Lessons Learned in New Product Development”, Research Technology Management, 53, No. 4, July 2010, pp39-51.
– KONERS, U. and GOFFIN, K., “Learning from Post-Project Reviews: A Cross-Case Analysis”, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Vol. 24, No. 3, May 2007, ISSN: 0737-6782, pp242-258.
Post by Keith Goffin, Director of the Centre for Innovative Products and Services and Professor of Innovation and New Product Development at Cranfield University