Whole Product

Understanding "whole product" starts with defining product and then building on that definition to arrive at whole product. Part of the larger product definition includes the concept of a product life cycle. Finally, we look at product development in the context of whole product.

A key conclusion is that the output of an engineering group or product development team is not a whole product. Further, whole product development begins earlier than traditional development process and continues past the point where "product development" is often considered to end.

What is a Product?

At first glance, the idea of a product seems obvious. Perhaps the simplest definition would be “a product is something you buy” or "the thing that goes in the box". To be truly useful to companies providing products, this definition needs to be expanded to include why you buy, how you buy, where you buy, what you buy to go along with the product, and what will influence you to buy the product again.

Further complicating the definition of product is the concept that people don’t buy things, they buy benefits. This means that the product is a tool for delivering a customer benefit or capability.  

As an example of this, consider a company that is purchasing a computer printer. In a very real sense they are not buying a printer - they are buying printed documents, or perhaps the ability to communicate complex information. When considered this way, many technical specifications for the physical printer become less important.

When the product benefits are printed documents, it is logical to look at how the information to be printed is prepared, where the documents will be produced or used, how the documents will be used, security requirements and what the documents need to contain. Based on this information it might be better to provide a single high volume printer or a number of smaller printers distributed around the customer site.  If the demand is for training materials, a high volume printer which prints on both sides of the paper and has sophisticated collation and binding capabilities would be the best choice. If the main need is for confidential information such as sales data, business plans, engineering specifications and human relations salary actions, then smaller printers distributed at or near their point of use would be much more appropriate!

Going further, if the goal is to communicate complex information then the best choice might be to provide the information on a web site or through an electronic document management system.

In either case, looking at the product in terms of customer benefits rather than as a physical object can provide new ways to meet customer needs.

Whole Product

Building on the definition of a product, a whole product is the sum of everything related to a product.  The whole product includes the physical product plus services, support, integration, product positioning, and even marketing. The "thing in the box" is only a portion of the whole product, and may not even be the most important part. For example, a company might choose a particular printer because of the vendor's track record for supporting new versions of operating systems and ability to repair a broken printer in less than four hours.  Neither of these elements are part of the physical printer, but they are vital parts of this whole printer product.

Companies have come to appreciate both the necessity and the advantages of working with a whole product.

Life Cycles

All products have a life cycle, a natural progression from early concepts through development, delivery, growth, maturity, decline and retirement. It is useful to divide life cycles into technology or market lifecycles and product lifecycles.

Technology or market lifecycles are the major flow of a major segment, and represent things that customers are aware of and buy. Perhaps the best know description of this lifecycle is in the classic Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.  This book introduces the fundamental stages and characteristics of a broad lifecycle in terms of customer expectations, demands and buying behavior. These ideas are widely accepted today and are at the core of many business plans.

Product lifecycles fit within technology or market lifecycles.  Many products will be developed and delivered by many different companies within a single technology lifecycle.  The requirements for a successful product will change depending on the stage of the technology lifecycle.  In fact, a product can often be modified and adapted to different stages of the product lifecycle with few or no physical changes.


A process is a standardized, repeatable way of doing something. Many companies are concerned about creating processes for product development, especially in areas such as market requirements, requirements definition, and sales and marketing.  This is often due to a fear of stifling bureaucratic processes with little perceived value which create extra work and destroy creativity. In some companies this fear is justified!

A good process will improve results, reduce the amount of unnecessary work required and actually improve creativity. It does this by automating the routine, repetitive elements of a task and providing a mechanism for handling exceptions. Processes that make life difficult are usually ones that do not consider exceptions.

With a good process, normal tasks are handled in an optimal matter. This then allows people to focus on the exceptions and to apply human intelligence and creativity to dealing with the issues that only the, not the process, can handle.

Developing an effective process involves understanding the entire task, including inputs, outputs, processing, and connections to other functions or organizations. A process map is often developed. Actually, two process maps are developed: an as-is map of the current way of working and a to-be map of the new process.

At this point is is vital to test the new to-be process and ensure that it actually works.  It is common to discover undocumented holes and informal procedures in existing ways of working - places where people have taken steps to make the existing process work. Overlooking these informal procedures is a common cause of failure in process re-engineering. A testing phase will uncover issues with the new process and allow them to be fixed before migrating to the new process.

Product Development

There are a wide range of product development methodologies in use today, ranging from formal, sequential waterfall methods to RAD (Rapid Applications Development) methodologies such as Rapid Prototyping, Spiral Development and even Extreme Programming.

There are situations where one approach may be clearly superior to another. In many projects it will be appropriate to different different approaches to different phases of development or parts of the product.

Many of the product development methodologies apply to the engineering or development phase of product development.

Taking a "big picture" view shows that the most critical part of product development occurs before development. These vital steps are determining what product to develop, what the requirements for the product are, and securing necessary resources (money, people, equipment, and executive support).

There are several ways of dealing with these issues. Robert Cooper in Winning at New Products proposes a framework called Stage Gate Process. I especially like the incremental investment approach Cooper uses because it gives you as much information as possible before spending large amounts of money on development. Another good feature of Cooper's work is his insistence on customizing a new product development process for each company.  He proposes a set of high level guidelines to use as a starting point and does not try to force the use of a generic checklist and set of rules.

Cooper and other experts emphasize the necessity of first understanding the market the product is targeted to. Once you have identified this target you need to gather market requirements, define product features and develop product specifications.

One of the most powerful approaches for doing this is QFD - Quality Function Deployment. QFD is also known as house of quality because of the house shaped mapping matrix it produces. QFD is a formal approach for gathering and prioritizing customer requirements, mapping customer requirements to product features, quantifying the value of each feature. In many ways, QFD applies the rigor of an engineering approach to preparing a product specification. A great benefit of QFD is that it removes much opinion and emotional baggage from requirements definition and produces a set of requirements that are more palatable to engineering development teams.  A QFD Requirements Document is an excellent bridge between marketing, business and engineering organizations.

Project Management is also an important part of product development. A sound understanding of project management methods and tools is very helpful. One of the most rigorous approaches is defined by the Project Management Institute as the ANSI/PMI 99-001-2000 specification.  This is documented in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, also known as the PMBOK.