Much attention has focused on the implementation of Japanese-inspired lean production in Western manufacturing industries, in particular in the automobile industry. Extant debate mostly has focused on the carmakers' outsourcing strategies and the transformation of system suppliers. This thesis instead analyses medium-sized expert suppliers, which function in both first and second tiers and explicitly aim to supply value-added components derived from their own R&D efforts. With a focus on product development from an operational perspective, this study specifies the lean product development context inside a tier model and conceptualizes the product development process to pinpoint essential factors for success for medium-sized expert supplier firms.
The qualitative inductive research methodology aims to develop ideas grounded in field observations. Data were gathered through semi-structured interviews with general and product development managers in eight expert supplier companies; two in-depth case studies included direct observations, interviews, and documentary analysis. The data reveal that the same supplier must manage a continuum of customer relationships, each with a specific raison d'être. Participation in the design of components confirms their special interest in product development.
The product development process consists of a four-level model of operational design (individual, group, project, and systemic) and four distinctive phenomena related to operational design: means of guidance, design support structures, learning, and core capabilities. The content and coherence of guiding visions and performance measurements constitute means of guidance and determine how people perform their work tasks and how individual and collective mental models of development work evolve. Design support structures, in terms of product specifications, information systems, and technology scanning, influence the efficiency of development work. Learning is a transversal issue that comprises intracompany intrafunctional learning, intracompany interfunctional learning, and intercompany intrafunctional learning. Finally, the core capability concept gains explicit meaning in the model of capability emergence. The interrelationships among these phenomena reveal that learning links guiding visions and core capabilities; design artifacts and support structures in turn provide important means for realizing strategic objectives and promoting learning.