3 Manufacturing Lessons from Tesla’s Former NPI leader

Alisha Gallagher

Milo Werner has guts. Sixteen years ago, she sent a cold email to Elon Musk asking for a job at Tesla, and today she is one of the leading experts on NPI in the manufacturing industry.

Elon Musk never responded to her email, but she networked until she ended up with an unpaid internship at Tesla in 2007. She worked her way up to become the Tesla NPI leader who launched the Model S powertrain, dual motor, drivers assist and, most importantly, Model X. She’s since led NPI at Fitbit, where she launched four factories in China and transitioned the company to fully automated production.

Now she’s a general partner at The Engine, where she solves some of the world’s biggest problems in health, climate, and computing. She was interviewed by Chris Luecke, host of the Manufacturing Happy Hour Podcast, at our 2022 Build Better Manufacturing Optimization Summit. Here are three lessons Milo has learned through her career as an NPI leader.

Lean on your contract manufacturer

Milo learned early on that company-owned factories are completely different from overseas contract manufacturers (CM). With an overseas manufacturer, the incentives are often at odds with each other: the company’s core need is to create quality products, while the CM industry is run on razor-thin margins that, if left unchecked, can compromise quality. Her advice? Pick a strong CM partner, and lean on them for more than execution.

She shared that with plastic injection molding, for example, many CMs have their own facilities with different styles, textures, and colors, and can offer advice on how to approach it for your company. You’ll know you’ve found the right CM when they’re not only aligned with your goals, but are also willing to leverage their industry expertise to help you uncover solutions to production challenges.

Get hungry for automated data

Working with CMs to collect data is also crucial to building a data infrastructure that supports every stage of the engineering and manufacturing process. Milo shared that having a strong backbone for data analytics, along with software to support the collection and interpretation of the data, will set up modern manufacturing companies for success — especially if it’s automated.

Building intelligent data processes is critical, because that’s what keeps engineers solving problems, instead of hunting through Excel files for a specific slice of data. “We should not be expecting people to go in and do the analysis,” she said. “Automation is the name of the game.”

Be an NPI leader that breaks down silos

Bringing on a new product introduction (NPI) leader is one thing, but in Milo’s experience, it’s another thing to set them up for success. Since many programs are run by project managers with little decision-making authority, communication breakdowns are unfortunately common, which leads to dysfunction and slower product launches, and underutilization of NPI leaders.

That’s why she recommends that NPI leaders read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. She reads it with her own teams to spark discussions about what good leadership looks like and how to perform well as a team. She also recommends Good to Great to learn about what it takes for companies to succeed in their industries.

The challenge of Tesla’s gull-wing doors

During Milo’s interview, the Build Better audience wanted to know: was there ever a discussion on scrapping the technology for Tesla’s gull-wing doors? In Milo’s words, “Oh, yeah. There was a whole internal debate.” What happened from there sounds like a sequence that could happen in any manufacturing company: testing one technology, discovering it didn’t work, testing a new one, then testing again and again, and ultimately switching to a new technology just before launch.

“It was a little hair-raising,” Milo said. “It was really challenging to get the technology right in such a short time frame.” But, at the end of the day, it paid off: “Everybody loves the gull-wing doors.”

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