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Improving the Fuzzy Front End of Product Development

By Donald A. Coates

Why have legacy companies been unable to continuously innovate? A study of several famous companies that have stumbled in innovation reveals that it is not just one activity, but a multitude, that are not executed well. That is why the old saying still stands: “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.” Innovation has been defined as invention brought to the market. The federal government has tried to measure innovation and has found it difficult.

Research is ongoing to collect information on important factors for innovation; however, most measure factors that give results versus the critical skills that drive innovation. A four-part model for continuous innovation has been developed. One of the most important parts is problem solving and problem identification. This is where the Theory of InventiveProblem Solving(TRIZ) plays a critical role since problems that are poorly solved or not solved at all lead to weak invention and innovation that can be easily trumped. The details of the model will be explained with associated forms that are useful for implementation. This article is part one in a three part series.

Why have famous companies failed to innovate on a continuous basis? Putting aside socioeconomic disasters, downstream product development failures or rollout blunders, many legacy companies have failed because they lack the front end management and technology systems, which allow for a continuous flow of new products, processes or services that outperform its competitors. Many had great beginnings and now have questionable futures. Some legacy companies that started with breakthrough innovations and then nursed them for years include: Polaroid, Kodak, Xerox, Frigidaire, Sears, Hoover, Circuit City, GM and Motorola. Obviously they did not discover the “Holy Grail” of continuous innovation.

An innovation process model that provides a continuous flow is apparently not available. Popular management books have an assortment of conflicting recommendations. W. Chan Kim and Renee Maubourgne, authors of the book Blue Ocean Strategy, indicated company failures are caused by too many companies competing in competitive markets while not pursuing unserved markets. On the opposing side, Jim Collins, in Good to Great, indicates that great companies must stick to the intersection ofits passion, profitable areas and what they do best. Henry Chesbrough,in Open Innovation, indicated some legacy companies did not embrace open innovation in a changing and shrinking world with many alternatives. All of these references have some validity based on the author’s experience and research, however, published criticisms by other experts indicate the theories are not the answers to sustained success.

It is logical that in a capitalistic competitive marketplace, for companies to excel, they must invent and innovate continually. How are invention and innovation related? Innovation is defined as invention brought to market. The market and innovation are used in the general sense of use inside or outside an organization. Invention can occur in business methods, marketing, product design, organization design, etc. Of the two, invention is the first to occur, however, only when brought to commercialization or business use and only when it begins to produce a profit will it be called innovation. This linkage is important in any system that promotes innovation since invention alone is worthless and innovation cannot exist without a meaningful invention.

Some experts have promoted ideation methods, which focus mainly on singular approaches, versus a method integrated into the business to support its recommendations, including Edward de Bono in Six Thinking Hatsand Frans Johansson inThe Medici Effect.1 These do not incorporate many aspects of business such as planning, business analysis and the environment, which are all keys to successful innovation. Good invention and innovation requires multiple methodologies with a concomitant level of skill.

The Context for the Innovation Process Model

The fuzzy front end is critical for great invention and innovation. It is shown in Figure 1 as the concept and feasibility stages of an overall product development process. Unfortunately, it has become vogue for many companies and experts to have a stage gate product development process that focuses on stages after the invention is created, as noted in Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail and by Christopher Meyer inFast Cycle Time. These systems do little if anything to help the fuzzy front end. In fact, engineers have been directed at times with good intentions to ignore the front end and focus on the development stages of a stage gate process. The belief was that fast cycle time was the key. Invention was left to the researchers in the back room. The researchers, however, are not always consistent. Researchers can get stuck in a rut, they do not always have good methods for solving problems and may not get the support from management that is needed. Under pressure the researchers can throw a partially solved invention over the wall to the development stage of the gate process, leaving that stage to solve significant problems. Often this leads to schedule delays and finger pointing that can demoralize workers. The lack of a documented system in the fuzzy front end is partly why it got its name.The fuzzy front end needs more structure so it can help with consistency. The result of no system can result in a garbage into development is garbage out mentality.

Figure 1: Invention Starts at the Fuzzy Front End of the Development Process

Withclosed innovations many good concepts are discarded as not appropriate for the business. Dinosauritis sets in many ways: not sold here, not invented here, too much risk, no method to attack the tough problems, companies retreat to easier solutions, poor long term planning (such as not having a long term plan if you want it all at once) or good concepts not introduced in a planned out fashion.

The following elements are based on the author’s 40 years in the appliance industry and university research in innovation form the pillars of an innovation process model focused on the fuzzy front end of development. The innovation process model proposed is a foundation for a system of continuous innovation. The proposed holistic front end innovation process model embraces elements of what others have proposed but prescribes these elements in a new system.

The four key elements include:

  1. Identify and solve the tough problems. This is one of the most important parts of the innovation process model. It separates the “good from the great” solutions since no solution or a weak solution leads to little innovation. There are many problem solving techniques available; TRIZ offers a powerful approach that should be at the top of every inventor’s repertoire.Without innovation a company’s products or services become commodities. This can be dangerous for the company and requires a change in strategy to survive, also noted in Fast Cycle Time. Commodity products are usually the purview of the lowest cost producer.
  2. Perform good business analysis. This determines the link from the technical domain to the socioeconomic domain as Chesbrough has written. A good invention can fail without a solid plan for entry and performance into the social world.
  3. Perform good business planning. This is different from short-term business analysis and looks at the longer term survival of a company. It uses data generated from several sources including the business analysis to develop multifamily planning for consistent innovation.
  4. Provide a good environment for innovation. The environment can improve the productivity for invention and innovation through a stimulating physical environment to management vision and resource support as well as psychological support.

These elements are part of a holistic innovation process model in a new prescriptive system.3 Several pieces of literature support such a process.As Collins said in Good to Great, “The good-to-great companies built a consistent system.” He implies that these companies do not necessarily stand out for doing one thing. Instead they do a lot of things right. It is like hitting on all cylinders. Collins also advocates a system that is based on reality which results in internalizing the facts. It can be supported with the old adage “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.”

The following innovation process model is the result of the author’s experience and study of innovation through direct advanced development, initial survey work and includes five years of teaching graduate courses on innovation.

Introducing the Innovation Process Model

The innovation process model is basically a clockwise circle of activities as shown in Figure 2. It is a process for the fuzzy front end of a typical product development process as shown in Figure 1. There are four elements to the process of problem solving.

  1. The identification of a customer need (labeled as ID in the diagram), the conception of a solution (conception/problem solving), the discovery of a valuable solution and the reduction to practice are considered part of the overall problem solving element. The potential solutions need to have utility. They also need documentation for a quality definition, analysis and solution for subsequent consideration by the business. For novel solutions the inventor should write an invention disclosure (considered part of the problem solving element). The invention disclosure is a witnessed statement of the concept. This will establish an invention date if a patent is recommended.
  2. The second element is business analysis. It depends on data in the form of documentation. The business analysis team, patent council (which may receive the concept documents) or management can recommend that patent protection be pursued. Intellectual property prosecution and business analysis are part of the business analysis element. The concept documentations may also be submitted directly to a business analysis team for review and disposition. The outcome of the business analysis can be the assignment of resources for a reduction to practice (creation of a crude early prototype, considered part of the project feasibility). Alternatively, the outcome may be to put it into a business portfolio for planning consideration, to have it recycled and researched further or pronounced dead on arrival.
  3. The third element is business planning. It primarily utilizes the portfolio results of the business analysis team. The frequency of business planning can vary. Quarterly meetings to review progress-to-plan and yearly planning meetings are typical. The planning will drive long-term decisions and disposition of the ideas by either placing them in an internal stage gate such as development/execution/production process or look to external organizations, licensees, partnerships or venture capital relationships.
  4. The fourth and last element is environment. Unlike the other elements of the model, this is not part of a sequence, but one that permeates the other three elements and is a motivating catalyst for those executing the innovation process model. It includes the external organizations, licensees, partners and venture capitalists that the company collaborates with. These are considered part of the environment in which the company works. This is the open innovation environment that Chesbrough refers to.

A justification for the model is based on the history of how many companies started. Some begin with a pioneer or inventor satisfying an inventive solution need. Other times the pioneer may try to find an application for an invention or discovery. Regardless, the solution must have some form of utility to be successful. If the originator decides to proceed they must decide for:

  • A physical reduction to practice
  • A virtual reduction to practice via a patent
  • Tabling the idea in a portfolio for later strategic planning
  • Killing the idea
  • Reworking the idea
  • Outside venture partnerships, manufacturing partners, or licensees
Figure 2: Innovation Process Model Diagram

Source: New Paradigm Innovations, LLC 2004

Later business planning is undertaken to guide long-term growth of the business. Finally, improvement of the environment for innovation is needed to perpetuate the business by motivating new hires. The proposed ranking of the elements follows:

  • Problem solving/problem identification
  • Business analysis
  • Business planning
  • Environment

An important point is that this is a simple circular discipline (albeit with some internal complexity as evidenced by the arrows in Figure 2) to improve the productivity in the fuzzy front end of the development process. Another important point is that problem solving as defined must have a powerful method, namely TRIZ, to attack problems to generate potentially significant solutions.


Coupling problem solving with good business analysis and the longer time frame business planning is a winning combination. The icing on the cake is to provide a supportive environment to maximize human productivity.


  1. Criticism of Good to Great, 2008.
  2. Robert G. Cooper, “Formula for Success in New Product Development,” Working Paper No. 23, Product Development Institute, 2006.
  3. Cynthia A. Montgomery & Michael E. Porter, Strategy: Seeking and Securing Competitive Advantage, Published by Harvard Business Press, p. 307, 1991.
  4. Vadim Kotelnikov, “Systemic Innovation,”, accessed 2008.

About the Author:

Dr. Donald Coates is an assistant professor at the School of Technology at Kent State University in Ohio and has developed an online course for TRIZ. He also teaches and conducts research in innovation morphology and energy/power. Dr. Coates holds a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the State University of New York and a M.S. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Purdue University. He was formerly the vice president of engineering in the Speed Queen Division of Raytheon and director of research for the Hoover Company of the Maytag Corporation. Contact Donald A. Coates at dcoates (at)