Again this year, Acorn participated in the 2018 BioMed Device Conference held at the Boston Convention Center, April 18-19th. With 2 tracks, one focused on R&D, the other focused on product development, this year’s conference included topics ranging from how machine intelligence is changing medical devices, to advances in sensor technology that will impact how patients are monitored, to strategies to help companies get products to market faster and at less cost.
This year Ken Haven, Acorn CEO, presented a topic titled “Strategies for Developing Hundreds of Successful Products with a US/China Team”. Acorn first decided to open a China development office back in 2003 – since that time, Acorn’s China engineering team (which consists of Acorn employees) has been working with the U.S. based team to develop hundreds of products and bring them to market. Acorn’s decided to open the China office based on the value it would provide to Acorn and its customers:
China is often seen as a lower cost way to for OEM’s to manufacture products and to source components. Yet any company that has pursued this strategy, particularly for the first time, will likely experience a number of barriers/issues that can easily outweigh the benefits:
Ken talked about strategies to alleviate many of these issues (and others), and Acorn’s approach. By far, the most challenging areas include communication and culture – and they are very intertwined. For example, Chinese culture is more conservative than the US, resulting in people often being uncomfortable asking questions, and being concerned about “saving face”. This can result in misunderstandings, wrong assumptions, miscommunications around technical and non-technical issues. To mitigate these issues, it’s first important to acknowledge they exist (ie, cultural differences), talk about them, and then implement processes to mitigate their effects. In addition, developing personal, face-to-face relationships and continuing to foster those relationships (and along with it deeper understanding of the cultural differences) has been key to Acorn’s success in making its China team effective. Ken also talked about how Acorn invests in an ongoing rotation of engineers from China to spend time in the U.S. – getting trained and furthering both the interpersonal relationships and cultural understandings. US program managers also travel to China to spend time with their counterparts as well.
Ken also shared a typical day in the life of a US/China team based project, highlighting some of the communication processes and tools Acorn utilizes. Detailed communication is key, along with avoiding assumptions (“the enemy”) – the latter requiring a constant mental shift in communicating. He talked about the importance of developing a common language, with both sides being very clear on the meanings of words in that language – virtually like starting from scratch – to help avoid misunderstandings.
In talking with people after Ken’s talk, it appeared that his talk resonated with people who have worked with China teams and suppliers. Managing relationships, communication challenges, the cultural divide were all recurring themes we heard, along with the overall difficulties/expense of trying to manage remotely from the U.S. (particularly suppliers). Achieving success is definitely a journey – and one which Acorn continues to travel.
Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.