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Using the Influence Model to Improve Quality and Cost in Product Design

I recently spoke to an individual whose title was Director of Engineering Operations at a major technology company.  He shared with me details regarding his role, and the relationship to the supply chain organization.

He first shared that this company has made  a big investment in having technical expertise in the supply chain.  As opposed to more traditional design and engineering optimization, the thinking in leadership is to embed more subject matter expertise from people who come from backgrounds in mechanical engineering, PC board layout test development into the supply chain organization.  In this case, a team of engineers is vertical aligned and tasked with directly interfacing with technology groups and business units to ensure that they are adhering to “design for supply chain” principles.  This group – called supply chain product operations –  is the handshake between supply chain and engineering

The goal of this organization is simple – help teams to take product life cycle costs out of their designs, especially those that impact suppliers, after-market service, product life cycle, reliability, durability, and multiple other dimensions.  Working with engineers is tough – I personally haven’t ever met an engineer who is unwilling to make any changes to MY DESIGN.  And because this group has very little “authority”, they need to pursue a different kind of model – let’s call it an “influence model.”

As you can imagine – engineers often produce designs which don’t consider many elements of total cost – and there are so many things that can be missed.  This team travels across all businesses, looking for opportunities to find best practices in product design for the supply chain that can impact all of these businesses.  Some of the problems they hope to avert later in the product life cycle include line stops, quality issues, after-market returns, and other issues – and armed with root cause analysis data, they can provide “suggestions” to the team on how to avert these issues.

So what does the influence model look like in this case.  I’ll let this gentleman’s description speak for itself:

We operate purely from an influence model.  We have development centers in Bangalore, Chennai, Shanghai, Norway,  Italy, all over…– and the only way we can be effective is to show something that is to the engineer’s personal benefit.  How does it make their costs lower?  We are constantly in the translation mode, trying to understand how what we are proposing is in their best interest.   It is an art.  If you don’t have power, influence is key.  People can say “I appreciate what you say – but I don’t want to do it today.”  Or they can do it – but we have to develop a compelling story to show how it might create benefit.”

Ultimately, we get to the point where we say “Let’s do a demo – make the prototype –lets’ try it and see what happens.  And then I can predict where things will get better – and when it happens –BOOM!  Suddenly it is their idea!  And they adopt it – and it is what I wanted them to do all along – and then we have to have the humility to let them go ahead and take the credit – because that is what change is all about.”

The influence model applies to many other areas of change in supply chains – and it is a powerful lesson that this engineer has learned well.