A Toy Company That Means Business

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2008-01-09
Staying on top of the latest toy trends and consumer tastes is hardly child's play. At any given time the designers at Funrise Toy Corp. in Van Nuys, Calif., may be juggling as many as 100 different product introductions.

Keeping track of each project—the company makes toy brands Doctor Dreadful, Gazillion Bubbles, Head Bangers and more, as well as licensed products for Disney, Sesame Street, Tonka and other brands—has been a challenge for Funrise over the years. In particular, there was no clear way for managers to ensure that toy developments were on time and on budget. Add in the complications created by growing sales and distributed development teams in the U.S. and Asia, and Funrise had the makings of its own Doctor Dreadful experiment.

"In early 2004 we reached the stage where our sales were rapidly increasing and a number of projects were falling behind," says Funrise CIO John Meyer. "We were starting to hear from [retailers] who were disappointed they were not seeing things when they were supposed to."

Funrise considered implementing a sophisticated product lifecycle management (PLM) suite to address the problem, but after investigating options, Meyer concluded most PLM suites were too costly or more complex than Funrise required. "You really need project management specialists in house for that type of tool," says Meyer. "Our people are more creative, more artistic in nature."

A search for options turned up a better alternative—a Web-based project management tool from Irvine, Calif.-based Project Insight that has allowed the company to increase the number of projects in development by 30 percent in three years with essentially the same resources.

"We're managing more projects and have much better control over the entire development process," says Meyer.

Narrowing Down the Options

As Funrise's slogan states, the company has been creating fun for kids of all ages since 1987. CEO and founder Arnold Rubin, who chairs the Toy Industry Foundation and is a past chair of the Toy Industry Association, got his start by working as a bubble mixer for a chemical company during high school in 1965.

When CIO Meyer began looking for a new project management tool in 2004, he had two primary goals. First, he wanted the package to be Web-based to support the company's international operations—though headquartered in the Los Angeles region, much of its toy design work takes place in Hong Kong, with manufacturing outsourced to factories in China and other parts of Asia. Second, he wanted the tool to fulfill standard project management requirements without being overly complicated.

After six months of evaluations, he narrowed down the choices to a shortlist of three candidates, then brought in a team of product managers and designers to test drive the options. In the end, the team chose the Project Insight software. "One of the key selling points was that it had document management capabilities," Meyer says. "It was also simple—managers found it easy to use. My concern was getting user buy-in. If it wasn't easy to use, or they couldn't do their tasks in five minutes, I knew they'd find ways to get around using it."

Projects managed by the system can last anywhere from one week to nine months. The one week sounds strange, but as Meyer points out, not all projects move forward. Some are quickly considered and dropped. Wal-Mart might ask Funrise if it can produce a children's playset at a $9.99 price point, for example. After a short evaluation, it might be determined that this would leave the company with little or no profit, so the project is terminated. "The earlier we can kill an idea, the better," Meyer says.

Page 2: Software tracks steps

The software has been set up to track each step of a product's development, from idea generation through to shipping, and to store documents related to each part of the process. Meyer calls up an example of an interactive toddler toy currently in development. Typically the first phase of the process involves creating a three-dimensional sculpture of the toy in foam or plastic based on a concept the designers have rendered in Adobe Photoshop. Next, an in-house audio engineer decides what sounds the toy will make and creates flow-charts of how those sounds will be produced when certain buttons on the toy are pushed. Eventually, those sounds and logic will be encoded on a computer chip.

The next step is generating packaging, which is done even before the toy is produced, because buyers at Target, Wal-Mart and other retail chains want to see how the toy will fit on store shelves. Then comes tooling, where the dies and molds to manufacture the toys are made, followed by pre-production, where the toys are produced and sent out to labs for safety testing (lead paint, sharp edges, loose parts and so on). Last but not least: production and shipping.

This particular project was launched July 30, 2007, and if all milestones are met, the interactive toy will ship March 30, 2008.

The Upshot

The Project Insight software has provided Funrise a better understanding of how long it takes to perform certain processes and a means to track those processes. In the past, project managers tracked their own projects using a variety of tools, from Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Project to simple notepads. Consequently, it was difficult to determine exactly how long it took to, say, design packaging for a new Gazillion Bubbles toy or define best practices. The software has helped the company determine process length and best practices and allows project managers to program in alerts so they're notified if processes fall behind schedule.

Using dashboards, a product manager can immediately see which projects are on schedule and which are falling behind. "From a management standpoint, it allows you to look across the entire development portfolio and see exactly where you stand," says Meyer.

The direct result: In the past, the company found that approximately 70 percent of its projects were completed on deadline. Now, that percentage has increased to 85 percent, with more gains in sight. In addition, the company is now managing the development of about 30 percent more products with essentially the same resources. And the software's document management capabilities mean the designers and engineers have better access to information. For example, the system stores images so designers can search for all Disney-licensed toy images. If a toy is experiencing problems with a sticking button or switch, engineers can search for "sticking switch" references and see all previous problems and solutions.

Project Insight vice president Cynthia West says Funrise is a prime example of the market the company serves. Many of Project Insight's customers are looking to move up from Microsoft Project or Excel spreadsheets but aren't ready to adopt full-blown PLM suites, she says.

Companies can choose a hosted version of the company's software, which begins at about $250 per month for an entry-level version, or install the software on their own servers. Funrise opted to install the software on its own systems because, says Meyer, it has the capacity in its server farm and likes having control over proprietary information.

Other Project Insight customers include American Honda, J.D. Power and Associates, and Target.

Meyer would like Project Insight to improve the reporting capabilities in the software, which he says offers a variety of canned reports but doesn't make it easy to build custom reports. Still, he says, the project management software has been a major step forward for Funrise.

"From an executive standpoint, it gives you the confidence that you truly have a handle on what's happening in the company," says Meyer.