Nelson Repenning, MIT

Lecture title:

Structuring Low Capability


Nelson Repenning, Management, System Dynamics Group, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Speaker(s) Web Pages:

Semester: Fall 2001

Date: Friday, September 21, 2001

Time: 1:30 - 3:00 PM

Venue: Room 4212, School of Education

Additional Notes:

Introducer: Ryan Quinn, Management & Organiations


One of the most common syndromes in product development, often known as fire fighting, is the unplanned allocation of resources to fix problems discovered late in a product's development cycle. While it has been widely criticized in both the popular and scholarly literatures, fire fighting is a common occurrence in most product development organizations. Building on a multi-year study of two firms' attempts to improve their development processes, in this talk I hope to answer two questions: (1) why does firefighting exist; and (2) why does fire fighting persist? To answer the question of existence, I present a formal model of resource allocation in a multi-project development organization. The analysis this model suggests that product development environments are particularly prone to fire fighting because they have tipping points, thresholds of problem solving activity beyond which fire fighting becomes a self-reinforcing phenomenon. To understand the persistence of fire fighting, I then discuss how the dynamics identified in the modeling effort combine with basic perceptual and cognitive biases to structure an environment in which fire fighting not only persists, but comes to be viewed as a key source of competitive advantage. The contribution of this work is to identify a set of processes, grounded in the interactions between basic cognition and the physical structure of many development processes, that can trap an organization in a state of low capability with little chance of significant improvement.

Reading List: you must be logged in to view this list

"Understanding Fire Fighting in New Product Development" by Nelson P. Repenning and "Self-Confirming Attribution Errors in the Dynamics of Process Improvement" by Nelson P. Repenning and John D. Sterman

Lecture recording: Structuring Low Capability |

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