Knowing What To Make Vs Knowing How To Make It

Knowing how to make something

I’ve spent the majority of my professional life working out how to make certain things. Essentially, I took an engineering route. This is what engineering is: knowing how to make things. We can sub-categorise into frameworks of organising teams: systems engineering, lean manufacturing, agile methodologies; we can sub-categorise into the specific science studied: material engineering, chemical engineering, aeronautical engineer; we can sub-categorise into role: development engineering, verification engineering (essentially, are you doing the manufacturing, or are you verifying what’s been manufactured to check you have what you’re supposed to have made?), but at the end of the day, all engineering work is aimed at making things.


I’ve recently read The Lean Startup, which talks about using your product to test the market, essentially asking the question: how do you know that what you’ve made adds any value?

The Lean Startup was interesting to me because I always put the product at the centre of any company. Within a company, around the manufacture of the product, I would put HR (getting the right people to make the product), Finance/Accounting (measuring the money flow through the manufacturing line of the product), management. But The Lean Startup builds a company around the question: “how do we know what we’re making adds value” and just uses products to answer that question.

Another aspect of the book that made an impact on me was just how different the development process of a company was in my mind, vs in the mind of Eric Ries, the author. In my mind, when you know how to make something well and you start selling it, you’re close to being set-up. However, this is just the starting point for Ries. Knowing how to make something just buys you entry¬†into the arena so you can start working on the real problem: knowing what to make.


Knowing What To Make

You can make the best product in the world, but if it doesn’t add real value in a preferential way relative to something else, it’ll die. This is the idea that has driven many engineering slogans over the years, for example, “focusing on customer pull rather than product push”, which is a core philosophy for Lean Manufacturing. Knowing what to make is just as important as how to make it, and I’ve realised that this is something I’m a lot weaker in.

In The Lean Startup, being able to make a good product is just the starting point. Having a product just means you finally have a tool with which you can ask the question: “what do customers want?”

The first thing you’ll need to do is to have some hypothesis. “I believe customers want a bed that’s filled with water.” Then you’ll make that product and see how it sells. This sets up a baseline.

From there, you can look at the assumptions you’re making and use them to iterate the product. “I was assuming that they wanted the bed only half-full.” You could start experimenting with how full the bed is with water and testing sales. Each product iteration should get you closer to what the market wants. And finally, after each iteration, the modern waterbed is made.


Arguments Against The Lean Startup Methodology

The first company that comes to mind which doesn’t really follow The Lean Startup methodology is Apple. Apple releases only a few products a year, and they tell the customer – rather than the other way round – what the customer wants. “You want a phone that doesn’t have keypads.” Maybe Apple is the exception that proves the rule. With new iPhone iterations, I know that they do a LOT of market research on the new features they hope to implement each year, but still, Jobs had always taken command of product direction rather than the customer. Ultimately, The Lean Startup is, like most things in life, just one way of many ways you can do something. You’ll need to work out what the best strategy is for your product and company.


Time Management

All this leaves us with the question: what should we apply our time to? Should we develop our skills in being able to make things: the classic university route in engineering? If so, what if we learn how to make things, but we have no idea what to make? On the other hand, should we spend our time looking for opportunities and working out what to make? In which case: what if we find a great opportunity – we find a problem that has a clearly defined solution – but we have no idea how to make that solution?

To me, it makes sense to learn how to make things first, even if this is just the start of our journey. At least then we can be employed by a company that already has a vision and a market hold. The company already knows that what they’re making is something valuable that the market wants: now you can focus on helping to make it.

The alternative route is the “Steve Jobs” route: knowing what to make but not knowing how to make it. From there he was able to amass the people around him who had the skills to make his vision a reality. …But to me, this sounds way harder.