Note to Management: R&D Is Not Production

Nov 21, 2012 | Updated Jan 21, 2013

In every organization, there has always been a sort of functional tension between the R&D group, and the rest of the company. R&D is seen as this "loose cannon, wild west" department, where they are paid to play and experiment all day. What companies always seem to forget is that R&D is not only the heart of a company, but that R&D must be allowed to run independently, to enable the full effects of innovation to take hold.

I have seen it happen time and time again: Companies watch their product evolve into a production item, and as this happens the R&D group is slowly sucked into manufacturing-support activities. The obvious goal is to leverage the knowledge of R&D folks to help maintain the design intent of the product as it begins volume production.

The downside to this "dragging" of R&D people into manufacturing is that the company automatically reduces its R&D horsepower. This horsepower is vital to the stability and future aspects of the company, to develop newer and better products which become the lifeblood of the organization.

In many companies that I've been with, I've walked into R&D groups that were basically ghost towns -- remnants of old parts and fixtures, worn-out benches and tools, materials haphazardly stashed in desk drawers and boxes. It made me wonder, "What exactly are they trying to design here?"

An R&D group needs to be autonomous. It needs to have its own legs in a company. R&D folks need the freedom to play, to innovate, to grow the next big product. This cannot and will never happen if an R&D engineer is spending eight hours a day, five days a week, filling out forms and reports instead of developing products. You don't pay an R&D engineer to fill out forms, the same way that you don't pay a plumber $50 an hour to mow your lawn. Wasted energy and talent becomes a disservice to everyone.

So, if you have an R&D department, if you're starting one, or if you have one that is all but abandoned, it's time to rethink how you utilize and leverage your technical resources.

Innovation can't happen in a company, if your innovators are stuck behind a desk.