Why firefighting is never enough: preserving high-quality product development


  • Work reported here was supported by the MIT Center for Innovation in Product Development under NSF Cooperative Agreement Number EEC-9529140. For more information on the research program that generated this article, visit http://web.mit.edu/nelsonr/www/.


In this article, we add to insights already developed in single-project models about insufficient resource allocation and the “firefighting” and last-minute rework that often result by asking why dysfunctional resource allocation persists from project to project. We draw on data collected from a field site concerned about its new product development process and its quality of output to construct a simple model that portrays resource allocation in a multi-project development environment. The main insight of the analysis is that under-allocating resources to the early phases of a given project in a multi-project environment can create a vicious cycle of increasing error rates, overworked engineers, and declining performance in all future projects. Policy analysis begins with policies that were under consideration by the organization described in our data set. Those policies turn out to offer relatively low leverage in combatting the problem. We then test a sequence of new policies, each designed to reveal a different feature of the system's structure and conclude with a strategy that we believe can significantly offset the dysfunctional dynamics we discuss. The article concludes with a discussion of the challenges managers may face in implementing the strategy that can prevent persistent under-allocation of resources to projects. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.