THE FUZZY FRONT END FOR INCREMENTAL , PLATFORM AND BREAKTHROUGH PRODUCTS AND SERVICES INTRODUCTION
The innovation process may be divided into three areas: the Fuzzy Front End (FFE), the
New Product Development Portion (NPD) and commercialization as indicated in the figure 1.
Most projects, once the concept is defined in the FFE, are managed in the NPD portion using
the traditional “Stage Gate™” (Cooper, 2001) process. However, three separate strategies and
processes are typically involved in the FFE for incremental, platform and radical projects . The
objective of this chapter is to provide the reader with an overview of each of these strategies
WHAT IS THE FRONT END?
The FFE is defined by those activities that come before the more formal and well
structured NPD process (Koen, et. al., 2002). Even though there is a continuum between the
FFE and the new product development, the activities in the FFE are often chaotic, unpredictable
and unstructured. In comparison, the new product development process is typically structured
which assumes formalism with a prescribed set of activities and questions to be answered.
Most companies utilize a either a formal “Stage Gate™” (Cooper, 2001) or “PACE®
approach” (McGrath and Aklyama, 1996) for managing product development. A schematic of
the “typical” five stage five gate model is shown in figure 2. Many companies consider the FFE
to include the 1st 2 stages and is completed at Gate 3 with a business plan which includes the
product specifications as well as detailed business and financial analysis. However, the
traditional Stage Gate™ process was designed for incremental product development and
“.may be inappropriate…” (Cooper, 2001, pg 151) when applied to platform or breakthrough
WHAT ARE INCREMENT AL, PLATFORM AND BREAKTHROUGH PRODUCTS?
The Wheelwright and Clark (1992) typology shown in figure 3 may be used to
characterize incremental, platform and breakthrough products. It characterizes products based
on the extent of product and process change. Breakthroughs involve substantive product and
process change. Incremental products require little product or process change. Between these
two extremes are platform products. Incremental products are generally considered to be cost
reductions, improvements to existing product lines, additions to existing platforms and
repositioning of existing products introduced in markets well known to the company, with well-
identified customer needs using technology in which the company already has expertise.
Platform products (Meyer and Lehnerd, 1997) establish a basic architecture for a next
generation product or process and are substantially larger in scope and resources than
incremental projects. An example of a platform product would be Kodak’s disposable single use
35 mm camera (called the fun-saver). An incremental extension would include a stretch version
of the camera (i.e. panoramic) and a waterproof version. Breakthrough products (i.e. new to the
company or new the world) typically offer a 5-10 times or greater improvement in performance
combined with a 30-50% or greater reduction in costs (Leifer, et. al. 2000). Breakthrough
products typically involve high risk technologies (i.e. inventions yet to occur) while platform
products involve less risky technologies. Polaroid’s development of an instant film camera would
be considered to be a breakthrough product involving the development of special chemicals
which would allow the film to develop within a short period of time.
The FFE strategies and processes for each of these product categories are discussed in
FUZZY FRONT END FOR INCRMENTAL PRODUCTS
New product ideas for incremental products are usually determined from the overall
strategic planning process or as part of an idea suggestion program. Once identified they go
through Stage 1 (see figure 2) – which is a “gentle” screen which evaluates the strategic fit,
market attractiveness, technical feasibility and the identification of any killer variables. The
gatekeepers are often not senior management, but technical and marketing people. Resources,
people and monies, are assigned to the project to perform both an initial market and technical
assessment. The purpose of this stage is to determine if the idea still looks feasible to pass
through Gate 2 – which is a more rigorous screen. If the project passes through Gate 2 a
detailed business case is developed which includes market definition and segmentation, product
positioning, product win statement, product specifications, market entry strategy, technology
and operational strategy and a financial. In depth market investigations are done in this stage to
understand both segmentation and customer needs. Competitive assessments along with
intellectual property evaluations which determine both freedom to operate and ability to gain a
competitive advantage are also analyzed. The developed business case is then evaluated in
Gate 3, typically by a senior management team, and allowed to continue into product
development if the project relative to other projects is expected to have the appropriate level of
impact on the company’s project portfolio. Most often the decisions on incremental projects are
based on the financial attractiveness of the project. The gate committee will then empower a
multi-function team to begin product development based on the specifications detailed in the
stage 2 business case. An example of an incremental product might be the addition of a color
screen to an existing PDA line, which in the past, only included black and white screens.
Though the assumption is that the new screen would fit into the existing architecture (i.e. size,
power characteristics and functionality) such that the new product can use essentially the same
manufacturing line, parts and molds as the black/white PDA. This process flows nicely for
incremental products which are already part of the overall strategic planning process.
Incremental and unplanned ideas, which are out of the strategic planning cycle, often need to
fight for resources to get through gate 1. Some companies have “seed-stage” funds available to
gate 1 decision makers so that some resources may be applied to these early stage ideas.
Without some resources it is often difficult for the new product idea to gain the market, customer
and competitive knowledge so that it can survive a gate 2 review.
Many companies maintain a web enabled idea generation process on their intranet so
that any individual may submit ideas. This process works effectively if these ideas are reviewed
periodically with frequent feedback, ideally within 2 weeks, to the submitter. Though many
companies have become disenchanted with the process as it becomes overwhelmed with ideas
and feedback lengthens to months or ceases to exist. Recently, several companies have been
successful with web enabled idea generation with targeted “idea events.” For example a
company might be interested in hearing specifically about ideas for achieving a 10-15% cost
reduction in a major product line. The “event” would be open to anyone in the company and
would occur over a specific time period – say 2 months. Monetary incentives (i.e. a percentage
of the cost savings) typically result in a large number of submissions – though can often distract
key people from working on their own projects which may have an even larger pay back for the
FUZZY FRONT END FOR PLATFORM PRODUCT S
The traditional Stage Gate™ processes, discussed previously, was designed for a single
product – not the development of a platform product which may require a multimarket,
multiproduct plan which will share common architecture and have common systems and
A classic example of a platform product was the development of a new common
universal motor with a fixed width and variable length which can be used by Black and Decker in
all of the their products (i.e. drills, sanders, circular saws, hedge trimmers, etc. ) instead of the
hundreds of different motors manufactured on different production lines. The result of this
change in product architecture resulted in Black and Decker being able to market a lighter and
more profitable drill at ½ the price. As a result Black and Decker gained dominant market share
and drove many competitors out of business (Meyer and Zack, 1996). McGrath (2001, pg. 54)
indicates that “…failures in high tech companies frequently can be traced to an incomplete
The FFE for developing a new platform starts out with a strategic vision of where the
company wants to develop products. This vision can come from the need to develop a new
generation product to obsolete the current. For example, Xerox realized that digital technology
was a major threat to their lens copier line and needed to develop a new generation of copiers
and printers based on digital technology. Black and Decker (Meyer and Lehnerd, 1997), in the
example indicated above, felt that they needed to dramatically revitalize their product line as a
result of less expensive offshore manufacturers making inroads into their market, the rising cost
of labor and materials which were decreasing their margins and higher standards of safety
requiring major redesigns of their products. Back and Decker’s strategic vision was to redesign
all of the power tools at the same time, redesign manufacturing to achieve a substantial cost
advantage and meet the new regulatory requirements at no increase in price to the consumer.
Alternatively the vision can come from the need to develop a new product platform so that the
company may expand into a new market. An example here would be a strategic vision for
Honda to use its competences in automobile engines to develop lawn mowers and motorcycles.
Product strategies to meet the strategic vision in this later example are often supplemented with
acquisition strategies when new market channels are needed.
The vision needs to be aligned with the business. Though, the strategic vision may be a
catalysis for changing the business charter. For example, a product vision indicating the desire
to develop motor cycles would require the business charter to change. Lynn and Akgun (2001)
indicate that an effective vision should have 3 components: 1) clarity (i.e. refers to having a well
articulated and easy to understand target); 2) support (i.e. implies commitment from people
throughout the organization to support the vision) and 3) stability (i.e. refers to having the vision
Developing a platform and accompanying product strategy based on the strategic vision
typically is done in the following 4 chronological steps. This effort should NOT be undertaken
until there is consensus between the team and senior management on the strategic vision.
1. Segmenting and understanding the market. Before specific concepts can be developed
the platform team needs to clearly understand how the market is segmented, the unmet
customer needs in and strength of the competitors within each segment.
2. Developing initial product concepts. Product concepts which satisfy the needs and build
on the core competencies, capabilities or channels of the company. A concept (Koen,
et. al. 2002) is not a product, but a well defined form including both a written and visual
description, which includes its primary features and customer benefits combined with
some understanding of the technology needed. A product concept for the Black and
Decker example could consist of rough sketches of a common motor and how it could
integrate and be part of drills, sanders and circular saws. Ultimately the product concept
needs to build on some unique skills of the company so that a competitive advantage
and favorable margins may be achieved. Multiple product concepts are developed then
reevaluated to assess their attractiveness to the market and the company.
3. Developing the product family. Once the initial concepts are determined a product family
with its accompanying product roadmap (Wheelwright and Sasser, 1989) is developed.
For example HP’s Product roadmap of its ink jet printers consisted of its Deskjet (i.e.
the initial offering) followed by the Deskjet Plus, the Deskjet writer for Macintosh and
4. Determining the economic case. Ultimately a business case needs to be developed for
the product platform which needs senior management approval. Although the first
product released from the product platform may have a negative return on investment
since it may have to absorb considerable R&D and operational expenses which are part
of the overall platform plan. Traditional “hurdle rate” calculations need to be done on the
product family with its stream of products based on a common architecture rather than
Typically the platform plan, with its first product is evaluated at Gate 3, with subsequent
incremental extensions following the traditional Stage Gate™ process. The overall process
typically is an intensive effort that involves 3 -5 people for often as much as 6 months. Though
the project can often be shortened to 2 – 3 months if many of the members of the team are
committed on a full time basis. The reader is referred to several classic books (Meyer and
Lehnerd, 1997; McGrath, 2001) and a several articles on platform development (Meyer and
Mugge, 2001; Meyer and DeTore, 1999; Meyer and Seliger, 1998).
FUZZY FRONT END FOR BREAKTHROUGH PRODUCTS
Breakthrough products (i.e. new to the company or new the world) typically begin either
with a strategic vision or are identified and persevered by an individual/product champion
Examples of breakthrough products which have occurred as a result of a strategic vision
are Tagamet and Corning’s catalytic converter. Tagamet (Nayak and Ketteringham, 1986), the
1st billion drug in the pharmaceutical industry began with vision of developing a new class of
drug, called H2 antagonists, for healing ulcers more quickly and painlessly then previous drugs.
Smith Kline and French agreed to support this vision. The project began in 1964 with a budget
of $2.5 million. The product was not released until 1976, 12 years after the initial effort. This
project succeeded as a result of the brilliance and tenacity of the research team combined with
a senior management vision which was clear, stable and supported. Corning achieved a huge
success in developing the successful ceramic substrate for catalytic converters. Corning senior
management set forth a compelling vision to develop the next generation of catalytic converters
when they realized the huge potential as a result of the reduced emission requirement of the
Clean Air Act. These factors were so compelling that Corning, in 1970, directed hundreds of
scientists and engineers to focus on this single challenge. The resulting product has been used
on more than 300 million automobiles. Technology development in these high risk projects are
often managed by a Technology Stage Gate (Elred and Shapiro, 1996; Elred and McGrath,
1997; Ajamian and Koen, 2002) process which involves many of the characteristics of the
traditional Stage Gate™ process, but encompass methodologies to mange the risk and
uncertainty of dealing with discoveries which have not yet occurred. Standard financial methods
for analyzing these types of projects do not work well. A summary of risk methodologies and
other techniques are discussed by Koen, et. al. (2002).
Many discoveries are accidental and often establish entirely new markets. Perhaps the
classic example was the development of the 3M Notepad (Nayak and Ketteringham, 1986)
whose journey began when Spence Silver recognized that he had invented an unusual glue
which was more tacky than adhesive. Silver invented this unique adhesive in 1968. Despite
visiting almost every division in 3M he could not find any use for it. In fact he had to wage a
battle even to get the invention patented – which 3M reluctantly did – but only in the US. It was
not until 1974 when Art Fry, a colleague of Silver’s, dropped his hymn book and the slips of
paper that he had used to mark places in the hymn book fluttered to the floor. Art Fry had his
“eureka” moment and envisioned the concept which is now a huge business for 3M.
While accidental discoveries are a common occurrence in most companies it is critical
that the culture of a company allows individual’s freedom to try their ideas without sacrificing
their career. While 3M did not financially support Silver’s quest when he first discovered this
unique adhesive – they did not prevent him from trying to find an opportunity – provided he still
meet his expected duties. Perhaps this is best described as a “caring” organization (Krough,
1998). Care may be thought of as the way parents think of their children. In another words, the
culture needs to value the individual and provide a degree of trust that he or she will do the right
thing. Care could be considered the soil in which accidental discoveries need to germinate in.
Without it they will quickly die. And even with it only a few seeds will germinate into truly
breakthrough products. Zein and Buckler (1997), in their study of 13 innovative companies,
found that these companies valued the individual and had an environment that was conducive
to high personal motivation. Similarly, Prather (2000) based in his work at DuPont found that
trust and openness that allows people to speak their minds and offer contrasting opinions
was important for maintaining an environment conducive to innovation. In summary, an
organization that values and trusts the individual is a necessary condition for allowing individual
discoveries which may lead to a breakthrough, which may or may not be aligned with the
strategy of the corporation, to germinate.
The overall objective of this chapter was to provide the reader with a more holistic view
of the FFE and an understanding that it includes not only incremental idea generation, but
platform and breakthrough development. The Stage Gate™ process is an effective tool for
accelerating incremental product development. However, it cannot be directly used for the FFE
of platform or breakthrough products. Platform products need to begin with a strategic vision
which will lead to a family of products based on an in-depth understanding of the market and
how the companies core competencies and capabilities may be used to build competitive
advantage. A robust method for developing new and sustaining existing platforms is typically
associated with the most innovative companies. Breakthroughs start out with a similar strategic
vision, but are usually associated with technologies which require new discoveries. These
projects may be managed during the discovery efforts by the Technology Stage Process. Many
breakthrough discoveries occur by accident. However, these innovations can only succeed in a
Ajamian, G. and Koen, P.A., “Technology Stage Gate: A Structured Process for Managing High Risk, New Technology Projects,” In P. Belliveau, A Griffen and S. Sorermeyer, eds. PDMA Toolbook for New Product Development. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 267 - 295, 2002. Booz, Allen and Hamilton, Inc. New Product Management for the 1980’s. New York: Booz Allen and Hamilton, Inc., 1982. Cooper, R. G. Winning at New Products, 3rd addition, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA 2001. Koen, P.A. Ajamian, G., Boyce, S., Clamen, A., Fisher, E., Fountoulakis, S., Johnson A., Puri. P., Seibert, R., “Fuzzy-Front End: Effective Methods, Tools and Techniques,” In P. Belliveau, A Griffen and S. Sorermeyer, eds. PDMA Toolbook for New Product Development. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2 -35, 2002. Leifer, R., McDermott, C.M., O’Connor, G.C., Peters, L.S., Rice, M. and R. W. Veryzer. Radical Innovation. Massachusetts: Harvard Business Press, (2000). Lynn, G.S. and Akgun, A.E., “Project visioning: Its components and impact on new product success.” Journal of Product Innovation Management, 18:374 – 387, (2001). Markham, S.K., “Product Champions: Crossing the Valley of Death,” In P. Belliveau, A Griffen and S. Sorermeyer, eds. PDMA Toolbook for New Product Development. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 119 - 140, 2002. McGarth, M.E., Product Strategy for High-Technology Companies,” 2nd addition McGraw-Hill, NY, 2001. McGrath, M.E. and C. L. Akiyama “PACE: An Integrated Process for Product and Cycle Time Excellence.” In M.E. McGrath, eds. Setting the PACE in Product Development, Butterworth and Heinemann, Boston, 1996. Meyer, M. H. and DeTore, A., “Product development for services,” Academy of Management Executive, 13(3): 64 – 76 (1999). Meyer, M. H. and Seliger, R., “Product Platforms in Software Development,” Sloan Management Review, 40(1): 61 – 63, 1998. Meyer, M.H. and Lehnerd, L., The Power of Product Platforms, New York: The Free Press, 1997
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Wheelwright, S. C. and Clark, K. B., “Revolutionizing Product Development,” Free Press, NY, 1992. Wheelwright, S.C. and Sasser, W.E. “The new product development map,” Harvard Business Review, 112-125 (May – June 1989), Zien, K.A. and Buckler, S.A. From experience dreams to market: crafting a culture of innovation. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 14:274-287 (1997). FIGURES Fuzzy Front End (FFE) New Product Radical or Development (NPD) Breakthrough Platform Incremental Traditional Stage Gate
Figure 1. The innovation process may be broken into three parts: the Fuzzy Front End (FFE),
new product development (NPD) and commercialization.
Figure 2. Typical five stage, five gate model of Stage Gate™. (Copyright needed from Cooper’s
Figure 3. Typology of new products (Wheelwright and Clark, 1992) indicating the differences
between incremental, platform and breakthrough products. (Copyright permission needed from
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