When attending a performance by a symphony orchestra, the audience witnesses a tightly coupled, highly predictable process executed by a high-functioning multifunctional team. This is exactly how product development should be executed.

Many similarities exist between an orchestra and the product development process. An orchestra’s “product” is delivered during the performance. The product is the set of emotions felt by each member of the audience. The quality and longevity of that product can be judged by how deeply the emotions are felt and how long the feelings last in each person.

The orchestra analogy is a good one for understanding product development, Six Sigma, Design for SixSigma (DFSS) and coaching product development teams. The analogy helps to create improved images of an “envisioned state.” Consider some of the similarities:

The Musical Score

This is the documented product development process. The score documents the actions to be taken to produce the deliverables, the order in which to take them, who performs which actions and when each action ends. Are there stages and gates? Well, in a sense. During the performance, the audience has the opportunity, at the end of each movement (stage), to assess (review) and applaud (approve) the work accomplished so far. This is real-time customer feedback. Perhaps a bit like the Agile method of product development.

The Orchestra

This is the core product development team. It consists of different sections (mechanical, electrical, software, etc.) with their differing responsibilities, deliverables and expertise. It is crucial to realize that, in an orchestra, each person in each section has very precisely defined responsibilities and deliverables. They never play a note that is not theirs. They never deliberately add or delete a note unless their defined role calls for improvisation.

Each section fulfills its role by expertly delivering the sound of each note to be played by their section (designs, analyses, code, etc.). There is a person in first chair. That person is the best in class. They are the one that everyone wants to have on their team. They represent the section and takes some responsibility for their section’s behavior (sub-team leader).

The Conductor

This person wears many hats. As a project manager, this person controls the execution of the score. They insure that the orchestra has the right number of capable members. They use their experience to alter how the score is executed to satisfy changing stakeholder needs.

As a systems engineer, the conductor integrates the deliverables of each section (system integration). They control the rate at which notes are played, how loudly or softly. They ensure that one section does not over or under play. This is real-time critical parameter management. Real-time assessment of the critical-to-function and critical-to-quality parameters (CTQs)of the system.

The Audience

Unspoken needs! Music satisfies on an emotional, psychological and visceral level. Can the orchestra make the audience (customer) cry, laugh or feel lifted? Can the conductor alter the orchestra’s execution of the score to adjust to changing unspoken needs?

The most important point to remember is that tremendous effort and planning precedes the concert. In terms of effort expended, the performance is the most trivial part. A world-class orchestra can do it in their sleep, night after night.

Each member has devoted years of practice and study to master their instrument, (their engineering discipline). Each has studied and practiced the score (a particular engineer who understands a company’s product process and has performed their part of it many times). The conductor has spent many years, working their way up to this critical position (seasoned project managers and systems engineers).

Hopefully this simple analogy can help everyone involved in product development to strive to an even higher “envisioned state” of the process at their company. It is a thing of beauty when a company achieves world-class orchestrated product development.

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