Write it down!

The Importance of Note Taking During Product Development
by Tony Gatica, P.E.
December 2010

 

Overview

Why do the team members at best-in-class product development firms constantly write everything down during product development discussions? If it seems that our pens never stop moving, don’t be alarmed: it’s simply to make our customers successful.

Why is note taking important?

Perhaps you think that note taking is only for students as they sit through endless lectures trying to determine if the professor’s next words will show up on the test. Maybe it seems that all the “important stuff” will be communicated via reports and summaries. Well, note taking has not gone out of style. On the contrary, it is still very important to keep detailed records during product development. We humans hear many things throughout the day but likely recall very little. And most likely, what we recall are the “big” items, not necessarily the details. Missed or misunderstood details can easily derail a project. For example, let’s say your expensive plastic injection mold is finally producing acceptable product, and you’ve met a critical deadline. But what if the missed detail required it to use a flame-resistant plastic? How much time and money will it cost for that rework? Has someone ever verbally given you dimensions in mils? Did you later remember hearing millimeters? A rule of thumb to follow is this: If you don’t write it down you will forget it!

Simply taking good notes is not enough – they must also be communicated effectively. A detail scribbled in someone’s notebook is useless if no one else sees it. Great product development teams successfully share these details with each other. Let’s take a look at the “whats” and “whys” of note taking and some possible consequences of not writing it down.

What is being written down?

 In a nutshell: everything! That may seem to be overkill, but how does a person know when to write and when to put the pen down? Well, that insight comes with experience and a few bruises. Team members need to be listening well during any discussion to ensure they clearly understand changes in direction or requests made by customers. Here are some of the more important items that best-in-class product development teams are writing down these days:

  • Product Requirements
  • Generally, these are defined in a formal document, but often a new requirement (a.k.a. an “innocent request”) is tossed out during a meeting. The requestor may think that because it was “requested” it is now a “requirement”. At the very least it needs to be clarified right there or brought up again at the next product review. The savvy note-taker won’t let this one slip by.

  • Product Stakeholders
  • Product stakeholders take on many forms that are often overlooked.  For example, stakeholders for the new medical product your team is developing are the doctors, nurses, and perhaps a few others, right?  What about the person purchasing the product?  How about the patient it’s being used on?  Taking good notes about the apparent stakeholders can help identify the hidden ones once that information is shared with the whole project team.

  • Design Critiques
  • Design Reviews are where the design’s details are discussed and critiqued.  It’s important to record all the discussion points around a design, both for future design improvements and also for “landmine avoidance”.  If someone points out that the design is good but adds, “Avoid plastics that don’t meet UL flammability specs,” the diligent team member will write all that information down and not just tune out at “the design is good.”  Recording both praise and critique is a sign of an objective product developer who checks their ego at the door.

  • Meeting Minutes
  • While this practice should be a no-brainer, many teams don’t record minutes and take the time to publish them.  Such omissions negate some of the critical purposes of a meeting: getting group input and disseminating that information to the entire team. Not only do the absent team members completely miss the key points of the meeting, but there is no record of the important decisions made.  Great product development teams write down the key points to share so everyone stays on the same page.

Why Should it be Written Down?

Strictly speaking, one generally writes things down that need to be remembered later.  While this is good advice, it is critical performance when working on any product development project.  There are two distinct reasons to write things down:

  • Track Product development history (aka Design History File)
  • Medical device manufacturers who must file regulatory submissions know the importance of keeping good records for the Design History File.  Without such careful notes, there is an incomplete record of how the product evolved and what key decisions were made.  The product development team that understands this and follows the mantra of writing everything down reaps huge benefits when it comes time to prepare regulatory paperwork.

  • Documentation of critical decisions
  • Probably every product development team at one time has asked themselves, “When was that decision made?” when the product suddenly isn’t meeting all of its requirements.  The way to avoid this situation is twofold: (1) write the information down and (2) communicate the information to the team.  Without good communication, any amount of note taking won’t prevent problems.

How well is your product development team doing?

We’ve discussed many reasons why writing things down is an important part of the product development process.  Good note taking discipline is natural for best-in-class product development firms.  If your current product development team isn’t taking good notes, here are some typical problems you’ll encounter:

  • Selective memory – “I don’t remember that meeting”
  • Inability to trace back to critical decision points – “When did we decide that?”
  • No history on how you got to where you are today – “This isn’t what was proposed!”

So, what are the consequences of poor note taking? Well, the big one is that it delays the point in time where issues are identified and dealt with by the team. The cost penalties for this can be huge. Take the case of the injection molding tool we discussed earlier. If the “detail” that requires flame-resistant material is not dealt with until after the tools are built, the cost in time and money can be huge. Think of having to scrap the tool and burning another 8-12 weeks of schedule. Not pretty. If that same “detail” was routinely documented and reviewed by the team during development, the cost of changing the design is at least an order of magnitude less. The difference between these two results is simply writing it down and distributing the document to the team.

Summary

Good note taking is a key behavior of best-in-class product development teams.  This practice helps capture those small details that can derail projects in the blink of an eye.  Knowing what to write down comes with experience, but no matter what is recorded, it is useless until it is shared with the whole team.  Best-in-class product development firms know what to document and how to distribute it, avoiding the “When did we decide that?” groan.

Write it down!

Tony Gatica, P.E.

Manager, Mechanical Engineering
M3 Design, Inc.| P: (512) 218-8858 | F: (512) 218-4107
575 Round Rock West Dr. Suite100, Round Rock, TX 78681
https://www.m3design.com

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About M3 Design
Founded in 1996, M3 Design is a product development company located in Austin, Texas. M3 is a team of world-class designers and engineers that challenge convention to help their clients maximize business opportunities by creating exceptional products and experiences with them.

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