3 practical ways to modernize your VA/VE process

Meagan Campbell

March 6, 2023


min read

Let’s face it.

It’s long past time for the engineering world to start thinking differently about cost reduction.

With the current state of the market, there’s growing pressure on engineering teams to do more with less. Cost down targets are getting more and more aggressive to counter the effects of inflation and supply chain disruptions. Yet many companies don’t have a strong enough VA/VE strategy in place to actually reach their ambitious cost reduction goals.

Beyond standard finance-led and procurement-led initiatives, there’s growing recognition of the need to develop more mature processes for engineering-led cost reduction. It’s no longer enough to rely solely on traditional tactics like negotiating with suppliers or dual-sourcing parts. That’s why astute engineering companies are already prioritizing and scaling their VA/VE programs to keep up with today’s competitive environment.

Because at this point, how you execute VA/VE is critical. If you’re not consistently reducing costs and making your product better, you’re going to have to cut costs somewhere else. Which most likely means cutting people from your team, or deciding not to make new hires. Either way, it limits your capacity as a company and creates a vicious cycle that can be hard to reverse.

So if you need to step up your VA/VE game this year, here are 3 ways you can improve your engineering-led cost reduction efforts right now.

Source: Deloitte report, “Cost reduction: Bridging the gap“

1. Make it easy for anyone to contribute

In a perfect world, it’d be a breeze for pretty much anyone to participate in your VA/VE process. 

More people means more perspectives, more viewpoints, more expertise, more cross-functional collaboration — and ultimately more cost-saving ideas. Which sounds great in theory, of course. But engineers know better than anyone that we do not, in fact, live in a perfect world.

So what’s preventing engineering companies from maximizing participation in VA/VE? 

Common roadblocks to getting more people involved in your VA/VE initiatives include:

  • Heavy reliance on in-person events: When a VA/VE program is largely in-person-based, travel expenses and logistical constraints create a hard limit on the number of people who can participate.
  • Access to CAD, PLM, and/or 3D tools: Many teams don’t have a way for anybody outside the core design team to easily view and explore 3D models, and the license costs tend to outweigh the benefits (especially for those without any previous experience navigating sophisticated engineering software).
  • Lack of asynchronous enablement: If in-person events and real-time meetings are central or essential to how a VA/VE program operates, scheduling difficulties and diverse optimal working styles limit not only the number of participants — but also the overall volume and quality of contributions.
  • More participants = more work: Without a strategic and repeatable framework for running VA/VE at scale, bringing more people into the process can mean creating more extra admin work than it’s worth.

2. Embrace a continuous mindset

The legacy approach to VA/VE is largely an event-based model. But the teams that are succeeding right now are making the shift from workshop-centric to workshop-augmented. While that doesn’t mean meetings or in-person events will disappear completely (or even that they should), it does mean their role in a successful VA/VE strategy is changing.

There will be times when it makes sense to fly people to one place, or spend a whole day together on a video call. But a lot of times, that’s the wrong way to go about it.

Having your engineering-led cost reduction efforts revolve around a workshop approach isn’t conducive to fostering a culture of continuous VA/VE. The easier you can make it for people to capture and share ideas on an ongoing basis, the better your results will be. After all, creativity and innovation are highly spontaneous and iterative in nature — which sometimes clashes with the core format of traditional event-based VA/VE.

Without a place to document ideas as they come up and work collaboratively in a flexible way, it’s very difficult to cultivate a strong VA/VE culture.

But if you create a system that allows for continuous, asynchronous VA/VE contributions, it can start to become second nature for your team to keep better track of potential cost savings ideas. That way, you always have a full pipeline of quality ideas to prioritize and implement.

3. Take VA/VE virtual (the right way)

Some or all of your VA/VE work may already happen virtually. However, there’s a big difference between an old VA/VE process that’s been digitized… and a new VA/VE process that’s been redesigned for digital. (With most companies likely falling somewhere in between, in reality.)

If your VA/VE program currently has zero virtual components whatsoever, you might want to consider that a red flag.

For most engineering companies, though, the next step in going virtual is to move beyond tools like Microsoft Teams, PDFs, and PowerPoints. Teams is not enough, because it comes with the same problems as a meeting room.

Just like in-person events, virtual workshops have limitations. If you’re using a combination of video calls and document-based collaboration — ie: meetings and messages back and forth with attachments or links to shared drives — it’s difficult to have good, effective, innovative discussions. Nobody does their best work within a messy email chain that’s 27 replies long (and counting).

So while things like Teams calls might always play some part in your VA/VE strategy, it’s important to approach your virtual VA/VE processes the same way you’d approach any engineering challenge.

When you do so, here are two important requirements to keep in mind:

  • Make it easy to review in 3D: Trying to communicate about a 3D model using words or 2D formats can be time-consuming and prone to misunderstandings. To be able to contribute meaningfully, any participant needs to have the relevant information at their fingertips — the same way as if they had a physical part in their hand, looking at it, saying ‘How can I reduce the weight of this component?’ or ‘How can I take this down from 100 components to 50 components to save on the manufacturing costs?’
  • Find ways to eliminate manual admin work: Leveraging the right tech solutions for your VA/VE program lets you automate tasks that would otherwise hinder your effectiveness. That way nobody has to use up their time trying to sort through meeting notes or pictures of post-its on a whiteboard, remember the context of the discussion, translate the ideas into some sort of spreadsheet or random project management tool, then have to chase people down and bug them for status updates.

How to prioritize VA/VE process improvements

Think about your current VA/VE program.

Who participates? Who gets left out? What teams or departments are represented? How often does the work happen? How does the work happen? Where does it happen? What are the barriers to entry? 

Now forget about constraints for a moment, and imagine what your VA/VE process could look like in a perfect (hypothetical) world.

Maybe you’d like to tap into your suppliers’ design expertise and collaborate more closely on designing cost out, right from the outset of a project. Maybe you’d like to get earlier and more frequent input from other disciplines within your company. Maybe you’d like to formalize your idea pipeline and generate a steadier stream of potential cost-saving opportunities. Maybe you’d simply like to cut down on the amount of work it takes every time you need to set up, organize, and orchestrate another VA/VE event.

Once you’ve clarified what your ideal VA/VE program could look like — whatever that is — then you can work backwards and identify the specific barriers that are stopping you from achieving it. Figure out where you can unlock the most value. You won’t be able to solve everything at once, but you can break things into manageable chunks and pick a strategic place to start. 

Because cost reduction targets aren’t going to get any easier to hit, not anytime soon. 

So investing your time into developing a stronger VA/VE strategy and culture? As an engineering leader, right now that’s one of the highest-ROI decisions you can make for your company.

This article is part of the Effective Engineering series by CoLab. Every 1-2 weeks, we publish right-to-the-point insights on effective product development.

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January 19, 2023

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