Orchestrating the implementation of new practices in product development: Learning through action research at the Volvo Group
Companies in competitive markets are always dealing with responses to changes in the external environment to be able to achieve long-term survival. One such response concerns changes in product development practices. In recent years, many methodologies have been developed addressing new upstream practices within product development such as robust design, design for six sigma, or lean product development. However, companies are struggling with their application of them in practice.
Since 2004, the Volvo Group has introduced several initiatives aiming for changes in product development practices. As the Volvo Group recognized difficulties in applying changes in its practices, an action research program was designed together with Chalmers University of Technology. The purpose was to study this problematic situation and upcoming initiatives, learn from them, and improve the situation with the help of change management theories. The action research was conducted with a systematic learning approach which resulted in practical improvements as well as provided theoretical contributions. Three of the most important initiatives taken at Volvo Group during the period of 2004-2016, are the focus of this PhD thesis.
The first paper in this thesis elaborates on learning from an unsuccessful initiative for introducing Robust Design at Volvo 3P that was led by an external consultant. The obstacles in the organization and weaknesses in the initiative are discussed. It was found that in order to implement the new practices to their full potential, there is a need for local development or adaptation of the robust design approach through local learning processes.
Then, based on learning from this first initiative, a second initiative, the Volvo Robust Engineering System was launched, and paper II and III in this thesis are based on this second initiative. The first paper describes and analyses the learning processes that make product development engineers in Volvo 3P aware of what the robust design concept can contribute in practice. This awareness contributed to changes in their work practices. This paper also elaborates on how Volvo 3P utilized a ‘Learning Alliance’ with the Division of Quality Sciences at Chalmers University of Technology as a means of creating a learning environment in which robust design practices are locally developed and used. The third paper presents the content and structuring of these industry developed robust design practices and makes a comparison to the previous literature-based approaches.
The third initiative is Lean Product Development. The fourth paper in this thesis is based on this initiative and describes how the Volvo Group organized its lean product development initiative and how it has been cascaded down and adapted to the Volvo Penta. It develops and discusses a theoretical concept referred to as a ‘Platform for Learning’ in order to implement local lean principles and practices and put them in to continual use. This paper contributes to the knowledge of how to transform an organization to lean product development.
Based on the accumulated learning from the action research processes and the three initiatives, the Thesis ‘Kappa’ empirically contributes to understand how to develop and transform the people’s practices in product development. It also presents and discusses the role that action research can have in supporting organizations orchestrating such transformation. The cyclical process of reflection and learning, being an integral part of action research, was found to be important for building knowledge while driving change. It was additionally found that employees can participate as ‘insider action researchers’, being involved in the research process and functioning as catalysers of reflection inside the company.
platform for learning
product development practices