Thursday, December 06, 2007

Testing the speed limits

In the Fall 1990 Sloan Management Review, Christoph-Friedrich von Braun published "The Acceleration Trap," calling into question our focus on shorter time to market. He later published the related The Innovation War (Prentice-Hall International Series in Industrial and Systems Engineering) (a book still on my reading list).

Tom Peters blogged about it (briefly). Brice Dattée and Dr. David FitzPatrick published The Acceleration Engine: Pattern of Technological Development, a mathematical exploration of the topic from a slightly different perspective. Barry L. Bayus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote an interesting review of his book. Eugene Garfield wrote another review. Alexander Kandybin and Martin Kihn quoted von Braun's work in The Innovator's Prescription: Raising Your Return on Innovation Investment in strategy+business.

His words haven't been accepted universally, as anyone in a wide range of industries may attest to once they leave work at 9 or 10 in the evening. On the more literate side, Preston Smith wrote From Experience: Reaping Benefit from Speed to Market. It was the subject of a debate (Die Innovationsfalle) at the 2001 CeBIT.

If von Braun is right, there's another risk to growth besides running out of natural physical resources: there's running out of time. It's analogous to an addiction: we need to keep getting more and more of the substance in question (reducing time to market, in this case) to remain satisfied. If we can't maintain our "supply," we crash and go into withdrawal.

In this case, the risk von Braun pointed out was the limit to how short one can make product cycle times and the risks to any financial success that's built on steadily decreasing time to market. Perhaps we can eventually cycle through product generations faster than our customers will accept them (do you want to replace the computer you bought yesterday with a new generation today and then do it again tomorrow?). Perhaps we'll begin to hit physical limits to speed (zero time to market would seem to be a very hard limit to exceed). If we try to break through that limit, whatever it is, and fail, we lose the business benefits we've been sustaining based on constantly improving time to market in the past.

I'm sure many of us are tempted to say, "We don't know if there's a limit or not; we should push forward as hard as we can, and we'll let the real world tell us if there are limits." Unfortunately, if von Braun is correct, hitting those limits won't mean a leveling off; it will mean a crash, and that could have a ripple effect that none of us will enjoy.

Does this mean I'm against reducing time to market or cycle time in general? No. There are many places in our organizations where reducing delays can help, likely including the delay from a customer perceiving a real problem to being able to obtain a product or service to address that problem. Without thought and testing, though, it's hard to make generalizations.

I perceive that time to market reduction is like growth: neither serves as an eternal, prime goal, but each may have its place in at the right time and in the right situation. I do encourage you to do your own reading, think about it, and draw your own conclusions.

How do you know if it's the right time and situation for you? If you'd like to explore ways to discern whether now is such a time and this is such a situation for your organization and how you might create policies that further your goals, let's talk.

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