Take Your Product Testing to the Extreme

Many of the principles of lean product and process development (LPPD) can seem counterproductive at first glance. For example, what if someone told you that the best way to see if a product will truly work…is to break it? That’s exactly what Professor Larry Navarre of Kettering University told me when I first met him – and there was no way I could let him leave without him explaining more. That conversation turned into this interview, on his self-coined concept of Extreme Testing:

So let’s start from the ground up. What is Extreme Testing?

The principle is this: It’s not enough to know that it works. You must know when it breaks. I explain it to my students in that way because we have to test way beyond the planned operating conditions of the product or the service. What we’re trying to do is push it to its limits to find out when it breaks.

It doesn’t do us any good to test to the specification. Products will often just work to the specification. What customers really want is a very durable and reliable product. You don’t learn things just by testing to the specification.

How did you first come up with this concept of Extreme Testing? Was there a specific event?

Not exactly. Well, it was a specific product that we were developing when I was in industry before my academic career. We were developing a system. It was actually looking very, very good, both on paper and in the lab.

We thought we had a really good product on our hands. Everything looked good. When it operated it was performing well. We went ahead with the product launch, got a lot of attention and began shipping products.

One year later we began experiencing fatigue failures with critical components in some of our systems. It was really a very negative situation. We were falling all over ourselves trying to help our customers. We crashed the redesign program. And that’s when we really started doing things correctly. Instead of just throwing a fix together and putting it into the field, we actually took the time to do a lot of extreme testing until we figured out what our problem was and then confirmed the fixes by doing even more extreme testing.

How does it compare to the existing testing process on product development lines? What advantages does Extreme Testing hold?

Well, the thing that I try to pass on to my students is that you’re going to get value in extreme testing in three ways:

The first is that you’re going to get safety. You’ll know when a system fails and how to protect your users. The second is reliability. You’ll know the expected life of your product. You’ll know how it will fail. The third is knowledge. When your product fails you can learn what’s going on. You can discover improvements to your product that you would never get if you allowed it to run at the normal specification.

Sounds like a universally useful concept! But are there any industries you think would find Extreme Testing particularly valuable, maybe more so than others?

I think where you’ll find Extreme Testing most valuable is in critical environments where human injury or even death is at stake. Examples might be medical devices, aerospace, automotive safety, things like that. However every industry and every service could benefit from Extreme Testing.

Without Extreme Testing, you only discover the problems in your product when your customer puts them in front of you. Then you realize you should have done a little bit more to anticipate the negative situation. It can happen in any industry. Just because it’s not life-threatening doesn’t mean it’s any less important to your business.

I can’t help but feel that a product engineer to whom I recommend Extreme Testing would say, “That’s a waste of money. You’re just testing it to see that it breaks.” How might you respond to skepticism like that?

It’s all about set-based concurrent engineering (SBCE) – one of the unusual characteristics of LPPD, and also one of the four cornerstone principles. If you dig into SBCE what you’ll realize is, in my experience, we lack the underlying knowledge that you would get by going through doing extensive testing and developing the knowledge that we should have had.

In SBCE we would have tested the extremes of our sub-systems of the total product system. We would have created knowledge briefs that capture the design understanding and our test results from our experiments.

Importantly, we would have developed tradeoff curves to visualize our knowledge and track our progress. That would have led into knowledge that we can reuse in the future. I’d like to point out that you don’t lose anything.

You don’t waste anything in gaining this knowledge, as long as you reuse it going forward by capturing it in knowledge briefs, tradeoff curves and eventually your design standard checklist. Then, all future products will look back on the knowledge you’ve gained in the current projects.

That’s incredible value. Companies that do this have an insurmountable competitive advantage. They know their fundamental technology. That gives them incredible value in meeting their customers’ needs and exceeding them, delighting their customers with excellent products.

Larry Navarre

Larry Navarre is an instructor at Kettering University teaching courses in supply chain management, innovation development, and management science. Larry has earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree from Kent State University (Kent, Ohio) and a Master of Science in Management degree from Purdue University’s Krannert Graduate School of Management (West Lafayette, Indiana).

Larry has 20 years of management experience in the steel, machinery, and plastics industries. His management responsibilities have spanned from Production Supervisor to Director of Global Product Management and Asian Operations. He has worked internationally with customers, suppliers and colleagues in 20+ countries. He keeps grounded in business as an owner of two companies managing more than $3 million in commercial real estate.

More than a New Product – A New Way of Thinking

Successful entrepreneurs, whether they are lone figures toiling in garages or supporting new work at major companies, are rightly celebrated for creating hit products. But what if there were something better – much better – than creating a product in isolation? What if, in fact, there was a system of thinking that supported the creation of entirely new value streams? And what if the path-breaking innovation was not limited to the product but encompassed all of the steps required to bring value to your customer, and even how it impacted the world? Just think of the potential.

This idea, of course, is one of the foundational elements of lean product and process development. “Creating profitable value streams” as the aim of lean product and process development was the insight of our late friend and colleague Allen Ward. It was one of many topics he, John Shook and I would discuss and debate over beers at Sidetracks while we were all at the University of Michigan. Al’s profound observation is so important because it demonstrates a deep understanding of the powerful thinking behind the LPPD system. In fact, it is the very essence of creating customer value because it requires that you consider every activity needed to deliver that value from product concept through the end of its life cycle.

This comprehensive, and intentional developmental approach is just one of the elements that differentiates lean product and process development from other methods and I am especially eager for those recently bitten by the “lean bug” to graduate to this way of thinking.

So, what to do with this profound insight about seeing beyond one product, and instead thinking through the creation of profitable value streams? This was just one of many challenges I faced as I wrapped up my research and headed back to the daily grind of creating new products and processes in the real world.

While I was at Ford, one of the most useful concepts we developed in thinking about value stream creation was (and is) “Compatibility before Completion” (CbC). It is the fundamental idea that designs must be compatible with the all system and value stream requirements before they are completed and released. It was originally intended as a powerful countermeasure to late-breaking development issues and subsequent spikes in engineering changes brought on by an unhealthy obsession with individual design release speed – and it was! But it turned out to be so much more.

By leveraging the CbC concept we built critical compatibility checks into our development system. This progressive series of checks contained demonstrable requirements timed to match the maturity level of the design at the appropriate point in the development process. You must be careful not to waste time evaluating premature and unstable data too soon – it’s just going to change. But you should definitely not wait until after designs are complete and drive rework. In this way they make up a series of JIT deliveries for development work.

Some typical areas that benefit from such checks include manufacturing requirements, product serviceability, product installation, product and process environmental footprint implications, and setup for aftermarket products. Each of these have their own series of progressive checks. It is a powerful, customer-centered, eco-systemized way of thinking that encourages the team to collaborate as they think through the entire value stream.

Many companies, such as Toyota and Ford, employ the CbC concept in their value stream creation efforts. They both make extensive use of virtual reality, simulation and standards to drive manufacturing Bill of Process alignment to help ensure product quality and manufacturing efficiency. Their efforts start very early in the process by examining master sections and standard locators and then progresses simultaneous with product design maturity all the way to part transportation, presentation and sequencing – with many virtual “JIT checks” along the way. Early Functional builds are an excellent way to check initial part fit, finish and function when development has progressed to the physical world and create a rapid feedback/learning loop before tool finalization. Menlo Innovations compiles disparate code and performs weekly software system runs with their customers to ensure compatibility to requirements and generate industry-changing products. Toyota demonstrated its commitment to the environment by employing a progressive CbC approach to hot stamping technology on a recent development program. The result was a two-thirds reduction in carbon footprint and the elimination of an environmentally risky shot blasting process to remove oxide.

There are many tools and technologies to aid in moving your compatibility efforts up-stream, where they are most effective. We now have everything from stunning virtual reality environments, to incredibly powerful simulators, to the numerous additive-manufacturing technologies that aid in rapid prototyping. But none of these, it seems to me, is as important as the organizational drive to create a truly great total customer experience, an enabling, foundational infrastructure to promote value stream collaboration, and maybe just healthy, hearty conversations between colleagues who are united in their pursuit of better answers…with or without beer.


Best Regards




  • We had a sellout crowd for our first LPPD Learning Partner Event of 2016. All of our partner companies had outstanding experiments and improvements to share and GE’s First Build was inspiring as always, but I thought that the growing respect and strengthening relationships between company leaders was the event highlight for me.
  • Our friends at the Lean Product and Process Development Exchange (LPPDE) will hold their North America 2016 conference on September 26-29 in Philadelphia. The agenda has been designed to create EXCHANGE and learning around key questions in the evolution of Lean Product and Process Development. Learn more at lppde.org.

Leading Companies Gather for a Two-Day Lean Learning Exchange

One of the most important and difficult tasks that an organization can take on is improving its product and process development system. Although they may recognize that this will provide significant opportunities, companies often struggle even to find out where to start. That is why we launched the LPPD Learning Partner initiative. One of the unique aspects of this partnership is an unparalleled opportunity to share experiences with other high performing, non-competing organizations.

Our latest learning event was held at GE Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. Thirty-five people from five companies came together to share LPPD experiments from the past six months.

“The LPPD partnership provides a unique opportunity to gain insights and learning’s on product Development,” said Kevin Nolan, Vice President of Technology and Development at GE Appliances. “It is an area that is critical to the success of a company but until the LPPD partnership, it was an area that was very hard to go and see and learn from world-class companies. The recent event that we hosted in Louisville provided many great insights to all the companies but more importantly showed us clear areas where we can improve.”

LPPD Senior Advisor Jim Morgan kicked off the event by reminding participants that this event was an important part of the overall LPPD learning cycle. He also shared some ways participants could work with their coaches to apply these lessons to their work back home.

Next, leaders from each company shared their work and current challenges in applying set-based concurrent engineering to their development process. After some very interesting cross-company discussion led by LPPD Senior Coach John Drogosz, Professor Durward Sobek of Montana State University led the group through a hands-on tradeoff curve exercise. It was great to see the teams break out their calculators and work their way through the problems

After reviewing some dramatic improvements to GE’s appliance assembly line that were enabled through their lean product and process development work, the group journeyed over to First Build. First Build is a pathbreaking center that embodies a key principle of LPPD: do the experiment and understand your customer. There, careful customer research and product development come together to produce the latest consumer appliances. Participants were fascinated to learn that First Build allows anyone from the community to just walk in, look at the displayed products and leave their feedback.

The second day started with an overview of craftsmanship. Jim Morgan described it to the team as “the visual, tactile and audible characteristics of a product that drive your customers perception of quality. Excellence in craftsmanship enhances the total customer experience and creates unique value. You can recognize craftsmanship in products and services by their simple elegance and seamless fit. They embody the elimination of the superfluous and the precise execution of the essential. Something about the product says ‘well made’ and actually draws you to it.”


Herman Miller’s John Miller then took the group through the work his company has been doing building craftsmanship into their development process and the impact of their award-winning designs. GE Appliances shared their work to date and took the group through their craftsmanship lab – it was an eye opener for the whole group. Andy Houk of FMC Technologies, the newest LPPD Learning Partner, took the stage afterwards and described his company’s mission, challenges and goals for their transformation.

Eric Ethington, LPPD Partner Program Manager wrapped up the event with a reflection exercise to capture important lessons and identify opportunities to improve the next event. There was much positive feedback from participants, particularly regarding the gemba visits.

“The workshop tours were really great,” said Bob Mullet of Bose. “They just make everything real. It’s one thing to read about it or know it exists, but to see it yourself is really inspirational. It’s that moment when you think, ‘Wow. Why aren’t we doing that?’”

“As I look back on the event I’m amazed at the volume of information exchanged, both formally and informally,” said Houk. “If you don’t get out and see what others are doing, physically being there, you are just stewing in your own bathwater. Getting together with people from respected companies that are having similar struggles as you and sharing ideas accelerates learning.”

For more information on the LPPD Learning Group, contact Eric Ethington, LPPD Senior Coach and Project Manager, at eethington@leanpd.org.