Understanding Fire Fighting in New Product Development


Nelson P. Repenning
Department of Operations Management/System Dynamics Group
Sloan School of Management Massachusetts Institute of Technology
E53-339, 30 Wadsworth St.
Cambridge, MA USA 02142
Phone 617-258-6889;Fax: 617-258-7579;

March 2001

Final Version Appears as:

Repenning, N. (2001).  Understanding Fire Fighting in New Product Development, Journal of Product Innovation Management, 18, 5: 285-300.

Work reported here was supported by the MIT Center for Innovation in Product Development under NSF Cooperative Agreement Number EEC-9529140, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and the Ford Motor Company. Extremely valuable comments have been provided by Laura Black, Andrew Jones, John Sterman, Scott Rockart, Rogelio Oliva, Steven Eppinger, Steve Graves, John Hauser, Rebecca Henderson, two anonymous referees and the editor. Thanks also to seminar participants at MIT, Wharton, Harvard, Stanford, and INFORMS Seattle. Minsoo Cho developed the web site that accompanies this article. Special thanks to Don Kieffer of Harley-Davidson for providing the catalyst for this study.

Complete documentation of the model as well as more information on the research program that generated this article can be found at http://web.mit.edu/nelsonr/www/



Biographical Sketch

Nelson P. Repenning is an assistant professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His work focuses on understanding the factors that contribute to the successful implementation, execution, and design of business processes. Current research interests include organizational change, process improvement in new product development, and the creation of cross-disciplinary management theory.

His work draws on a number of modeling methods including simulation, non-linear dynamics, and game and contract theory. He is currently working with MITs Center for Innovation in Product Development. Address: E53-339, 30 Wadsworth Street, Cambridge MA 02142, nelsonr@mit.edu, http://web.mit.edu/nelsonr/www/




Understanding Fire Fighting in New Product Development



Despite documented benefits, the processes described in the new product development literature often prove difficult to follow in practice. A principal source of such difficulties is the phenomenon of fire fightingthe unplanned allocation of resources to fix problems discovered late in a product's development cycle. While it has been widely criticized, fire fighting is a common occurrence in many product development organizations. To understand both its existence and persistence, in this article I develop a formal model of fire fighting in a multi-project development environment. The major contributions of this analysis are to suggest that: (1) fire fighting can be a self-reinforcing phenomenon; and (2) multi-project development systems are far more susceptible to this dynamic than is currently appreciated. These insights suggest that many of the current methods for aggregate resource and product portfolio planning, while necessary, are not sufficient to prevent fire fighting and the consequent low performance.

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