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    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    The ASIC Factory (Part 4) : The Toyota Way For Fabless ASICs

    This post is part 4 of the application of the 14 principles of the Toyota Way to the ASIC design process. To catch up, you can either read Part 1 , Part 2 and Part 3 or click on principles #1 through #6 below.

    #1. Base your management decisions on a long-term philosophy, even at the expense of short-term financial goals.

    Create a continuous process flow to bring problems to the surface.

    Use "pull" systems to avoid overproduction.

    #4. Level out the workload (heijunka). (Work like the tortoise, not the hare).

    #5. Build a culture of stopping to fix problems, to get quality right the first time.

    #6. Standardized tasks and processes are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.

    #7. Use visual control so no problems are hidden.

    The principle of visual control is not about a fancy GUI with lots of bells and whistles. It's about providing the user the easiest possible way to check whether their work is on track or not. The idea is : summarize, summarize, summarize. Create indicators that make it easy to take decisions. It's the difference between a IR drop text report and a heat map. The former is accurate but the latter is a more effective indicator. But, don't think you have to draw pictures all the time. A simple summary table that captures the essence of a 10000 line timing report is also a visual indicator in this context. Effectively summarizing a report is one level of visual control. What about the entire design project? Imagine, for example, an active version of your ASIC methodology flow diagram. As tasks get completed, boxes turn green in real time. Perhaps, the size of the boxes could be indicative of the time taken for a task. In one look, the project manager knows where the project is and what needs to be done.

    Be sure to tune the visual indicators to match the target end-user. Unlike the ASIC flow visual used by the design manager, a timing engineer would see a summary table with violations categorized by slack, number of violations, violation clock groups, etc. For someone at the CEO level, all they'd see is a progress bar saying 'project 65% complete'.

    #8. Use only reliable, thoroughly tested technology that serves your people and processes.

    Stable processes built on stable technologies and tools is what enables a fabless ASIC company to deliver quality products on a predictable schedule. Given this, there has to be some very compelling reasons for a company to migrate to newer technologies, processes and tools.

    • Will it fit into and improve our processes?
      If no, you can stop right here. The tools serve the process and not the other way around. Before anything else, ensure that your new tools will fit into or improve your processes.
    • Will it benefit our engineers?
      Even the most technologically advanced tool is worth nothing if it cannot be used by your engineers. Ensure the people who actually going to use the tool think it's going to improve their lot.
    • Has it been tested by us?
      Ensure that you go put the tool through its paces with meaningful tests. It's good to have a formal evaulation process and a set of testcases to measure the benefits of any new tool or technology.
    • Does it consistently offer a marked value improvement over current tools?
      It is essential that a new tool or technology offer a significant value addition over existing ones for successful adoption. Usually, there's substantial institutional knowledge (tacit or explicit) about incumbent tools and technologies. When you shift, there's a learning curve that will cause some impact in terms of productivity. Further, the value addition is what will drive your people to adopt the new technology or tool. If new tools do not deliver significant value over current ones, they's not worth using.
    • Does it require a significant rework of processes?
      Much like the previous question, some tools might require too many changes to the way you do business. Rapid change is an energizing concept for business books but suicidal when it comes to mucking around with processes.
    You don't want to become a dinosaur clinging onto processes till you become extinct. You don't want to surf on the edge of chaos, either. How does one reconcile constant improvement of processes with the if-it-aint-broke diktat? Separate the improvement of processes from the mainstream. Live projects continue using proven technologies and processes with success. At the same time, there is a group or an effort to evaluate new technologies, tools and methodologies that have the potential to offer a value addition over current technologies, tools and processes. If the improvements show promise after exhaustive testing, they can be incorporated into the mainstream methodology.

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