That is not to recommend design for its own sake, but something as basic as a lavatory cubicle can become a world-beater if its design is sufficiently attractive - as the product design consultancy Goodwin Emck found out when it became involved with the small UK company Thrislington. Largely thanks to design, it grew from a three-man operation building low-cost cubicles into a high-quality manufacturer.
The answer is to involve the designer at the outset in the project. This is what the Japanese and some Europeans have been doing for some time, but it seems Britain is finally catching on.
Tomorrow, the Confederation of British Industry and the Department of Trade and Industry are co-sponsoring a conference at Centrepoint in central London entitled 'Creating World Class Products'. It aims to clarify the process of product development to help UK companies compete in an increasingly tough marketplace.
This means that the team-based working approach currently in vogue with management thinkers should be extended to product development. All involved, from marketing departments to engineers, should be involved throughout the process.
This would help to avoid , confusion, internal battles and delays before the product is able to go into production.
David Goodwin, managing director of Goodwin Emck, cites the effort of Brookes and Gatehouse, maker of yachting instruments.
A few years ago, the company realised that the market for sailing boats was shifting towards the middle ground and feared its upmarket products - priced at pounds 2,000 to pounds 3,000 - would lose market share. It decided to introduce a new range of products quickly.
By using 'simultaneous engineering' techniques - having all the people involved in the process working together from the start - rather than introducing them sequentially, it halved the usual time for such a project from a year to six months and stayed within 5 per cent of the development budget. Its effort won it a CBI design effectiveness award.
Although there has been some reluctance to embrace this sort of thinking in Britain, Mr Goodwin sees the barriers within companies gradually being broken down. They are realising the approach cuts wastage and encourages greater commitment. Instead of different departments charging off in opposite directions, there is - in nautical terminology - better navigation.