It’s the end of the year—the best time to get organized for the year to come. If you found yourself struggling with out-of-control changes in 2011, maybe it’s finally time to create and formalize an engineering change process.

While creating a process to manage the unexpected may seem oxymoronic, for a business to run successfully, changes must be proposed, executed and communicated systematically.

You may be able to get away with an informal or non-existent process for managing change when you’re first starting out, but as you scale, part quantities become more significant. With more money on the line, leaving things open to error or chance just isn’t worth the risk.

Why should you create a process for change?

In general, the most important reason people create change boards is to make sure that all products go through the same set of signatures, and that all the right groups have visibility.

Translation: CYA.

If you make a change that a key player hasn’t approved, and it turns out there is a problem, any inventory you’ve purchased is wasted, money is lost and (sometimes) people are fired.  So before spending $8 million to switch out an integrated circuit chip that’s 33 times more expensive—but so much better—make sure everyone knows about the planned change, and agrees that it’s worth it.

The change process is about creating visibility. A change is made up of the following steps:

  1. Finding an issue

  2. Reporting an issue

  3. Proposing a solution

  4. Discussing a solution

  5. Agreeing on a solution

  6. Implementing a solution

  7. Reporting that the solution was implemented

Without a change process, those steps often happen out of order (or not at all) and changes get pushed through in a haphazard way. With a change process, these steps happen in the right order, in a predictable period of time—and everyone is informed. This regularity will make your life much easier.

Things to consider when designing your change board

So now that you’re on board with creating a change process, you must decide what you’d like the process to be.  An ideal system balances flexibility, speed and control. You need to make sure all stakeholders approve the change so there are no surprises later on when you’re buying parts in volume. You also need to be able to make changes before issues get out of hand, so you want a process that can happen fast. For example, if you’re making a bike with the wrong rims, you may only lose a day’s worth of bad inventory if you can change the rim out quickly—if you take a month to address the issue, it’s another story.

Who needs to approve a change?

Once you create an outline for the process, the next thing to consider is who needs to approve a change.*

*This is different than who wants to see a change. While everyone in the organization may want visibility into a particular change, not everyone needs to formally approve it.

For example, while the entire engineering department may want to be copied on a change (which would never happen) only one or two people should be responsible for approving the change.

In many cases, you probably want the engineer who made the change, the head of engineering and document control to sign off on a change. Potentially someone from opps, or maybe someone from an in-house manufacturing group if you work with a quality or purchasing team.

Other than that, keep it simple, because when too many people are involved, the approval process comes to a screeching halt.

 “I’ve set up a change board and it’s not immediately perfect! What do I do?”

When creating a change board, a well-structured plan and designated leader can help you stay on track and achieve your business goals. But no matter how much planning you do, expect that there will be bumps along the way.

For example, maybe you’ll realize you put someone on the change board who should really be on the design board. Maybe you’ll realize that your VP of engineering always delegates sign-off, so the VP’s delegate should actually be on the change board. Maybe you will struggle to get everyone to do their part. Just know it won’t be 100% smooth right away.

Although there is a bit of work required up front, a formal change process is worth the effort. So when you’re filling out your January calendar, pencil in some time to examine how your organization handles change. I promise it will pay off.