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Well-established project management methods used in other industries can be applied to IP departments, as Dominique Christ of Dennemeyer Consulting explains.
A significant number of IP departments are already outsourcing elements of their services to become more efficient and focus on value-adding tasks. However, few have taken a hard look at their internal processes to identify how hidden potentials can be captured.
In times of economic uncertainty and shrinking budgets, scrutinising workflows and interfaces is crucial to get the maximum impact from constrained resources.
The “agile” methodology is often used in digital transformations, and “lean/pull planning” is a well-known concept in the manufacturing space.
However, IP departments have so far overlooked the considerable potential that can be harnessed from applying these principles to their service processes. How can these methodologies be used to make IP processes more effi-cient, freeing up time for greater focus on tasks that add value?
IP legal team leaders are familiar with the mounting pressure to bring IP costs down, better manage IP portfolios, and make workflows more efficient. In periods of economic uncertainty, when top management is inclined to set up cost-transformation programmes, such pressure is likely to increase.
With personnel in IP departments scarce and often overworked, IP legal team leaders will now have to find additional efficiencies without completely losing the trust and diminishing the morale of their talented and valuable workforce.
Much has been written about outsourcing certain legal services, such as docketing or payments, and digitising IP management using helpful software and analytics tools. Many companies have implemented such practices, but few have succeeded in building lean and agile operations that enable them to revise and improve the processes and workflows of their IP department and adjacent functions, such as research and development (R&D) or marketing.
This is a missed opportunity. A lean and agile approach can yield surprising cost savings and efficiency gains and can improve employee satisfaction significantly.
Turning traditional workflows on their head
The “lean” concept was developed in the manufacturing industry in the 1980s. It implies a radical orientation to-wards customer value, workflow optimisation, employee empowerment, and a culture of continuous improvement.
The overarching idea is that all steps, tasks, iterations, and tools that do not contribute to the final output should be eliminated. This implies an exclusive focus on the final “product”. In other words, the tangible outcome or result of any production or service process.
If we apply this idea to the world of in-company professional IP services, the “customer” is typically an internal business unit, for example, the R&D department or the management team, to whom the IP department provides its services. In this context, the “product” is the outcome of the service process.
The lean concept is relatively easy to grasp when applied to the automotive industry, for example, where many lean tools, such as the Toyota Production System, have been developed. By contrast, its application in an IP setting is somewhat amorphous and challenging to grasp.
Nevertheless, the end product of a service process can and should be defined. For example, in IP departments, the lean approach may be extended to the process of securing and managing patents and other IP assets, updating monthly monitoring reports on given technologies or competitors, outputs relating to freedom-to-operate analyses, and so on.
”The lean approach may be extended to the process of securing and managing patents and other IP assets, updating monthly monitoring reports on given technologies or competitors.” - Dominique Christ
The optimisation method in a lean system is the application of a pull system for different work packages or steps. The workflow is not defined in a linear stepwise fashion — the starting point for determining the workflow is the very last step in the value chain, before the “product” is delivered to the internal customer.
The concept turns traditional workflows on their head. The starting point is the customer, the person in the chain with the clearest view of what they need from the final product. By creating a workflow around the customer, it is possible to define the timing and quality of the inputs required from all who contribute to the production process.
For instance, in a legal context, the paralegal will determine the level of technical detail required from the R&D team and the schedule for its delivery to the legal team, who will then be able to produce the competitive monitoring report for the given technology.
Inputs are defined in this way at every stage of the production chain, with each successor activity determining its predecessor. This is a radical shift in workflow design and generates significant benefits.
Benefits of a lean approach
In IP intelligence, insights about certain technologies are researched. Competitors are monitored to provide R&D departments with state-of-the-art knowledge to inspire new inventions while minimising the risk of infringement.
Unfortunately, many IP departments still think first about “what is possible” rather than “what is valuable”. Collecting and later revising large masses of information, if ever done, is a time-consuming duplication of effort.
In a recent project, Dennemeyer Consulting redesigned the IP intelligence monitoring process for a client. As a first step, we contacted potential users from the R&D department and other business units, including marketing and business development.
With their expectations in mind, we started an iterative redesign of the process. The aim was to focus only on the most relevant results, considering that investigations would be undertaken only on an exceptional basis and upon request.
By redefining these service levels, it was possible to significantly free up the burden on IP colleagues in at least four significant ways. The lean approach we used resulted in:
- Shifting mindsets towards a focus on outcomes and redirecting attention to identifying what needs to be achieved rather than overly concentrating on the activity itself;
- Making it possible to eliminate administrative steps or repetitive loops which do not contribute to the desired outcome. Established, long-standing managerial procedures that contribute little to defined outcomes will disappear from a lean workflow, saving a great deal of time and eliminating fruitless effort;
- Improving the speed at which professional services are delivered when clear agreements on pull workflow planning are in place, freeing up more time to focus on tasks that add value; and
- Enhancing understanding among employees and business units about their interaction and specific needs. This improves effectiveness and heightens morale.
”An agile approach relies on quick iterations of semi-finished products and involves the customer along the way.”
The agile methodology
Agile methodology, particularly design thinking, is another approach that can reshape workflow processes. Agile thinking originated from the software development industry and replaced the waterfall approach, where software solutions were shared with customers only when finalised.
In some instances, software development would take months, even years, and when the product was eventually released, customers often found that their needs were not met and were disappointed.
By contrast, an agile approach relies on quick iterations of semi-finished products and involves the customer along the way. Although the product may be only partially complete at each iteration, customers have the opportunity to give their inputs on the development process.
Within the IP setting, take the patent examination process as an example. The prosecution phase for a European patent application can take between three and six years from the date of filing to patent grant. Over such a period, boundary conditions, such as markets, or the relevance of protected products, may change and have an impact on the application. In some cases, the application can even be abandoned for cost-saving reasons.
Patent attorneys, who are deeply involved in the patent prosecution process, often focus on getting the case granted “somehow”. They do not look at the bigger picture.
With an agile approach, such a view would be adjusted dynamically to ensure that the underlying patent filing and prosecution strategies create a powerful patent that is enforceable and secures exclusivity for the business as it evolves.
When it comes to product or process development, the design thinking that is embedded in an agile approach focuses attention on the most relevant areas for improvement.
An agile approach challenges traditional methodologies that focus on key performance indicators, process charts, or instructions. Relevant employees are asked to reveal their most relevant pain points and are thus empowered. By viewing a process from a new perspective, it is possible to identify additional problems that employees may not have otherwise perceived.
The pain points are ranked according to their severity and potential to improve the process. Dedicated solutions are then developed, which often go in an unforeseen, new, and creative direction.
Applying these methods to the work of an IP legal team requires a structured approach, excellent moderation skills, and employee buy-in to improve the current situation. When implemented correctly, an approach that embraces the “lean” and “agile” concepts can open up new horizons for productivity, efficiency and value addition.
It can also improve employee satisfaction and boost their energy to drive and expand a company’s capacity to safeguard and promote its IP, which is one of its most important strategic assets, after all.
Dominique Christ is managing director of consulting & seminars at Dennemeyer Consulting. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Dennemeyer, IP services, project management, portfolio, R&D, marketing, Toyota, infringement, patent prosecution, strategic assets