There are five variables I consider when analyzing the “health” of technology companies and their products. These are requirements maturity, technology maturity, acquisition strategy, logistics supportability plans, project and technical management maturity.
Requirements Maturity: How well defined is the problem we are trying to solve? Did they spend the time doing market research, trade studies, surveys? We requirements documented and developed from a few top-level requirements to more concrete specfics? Does it appear they tried to start designing (imposing physical constraints) too early thus limiting the robustness of the design? Are they susceptible to gold-plating or requirements creep?
Technology Maturity: Is the technology ready for mass production? Plenty of cool things work in a controlled, laboratory environment but take them into the real world and they die quick. Are we using technologies that are ready for prime-time and the abuse of end user?
Acquisition Strategy: Are they betting the farm on unrealistics contractual or acquisition plans? For example, we we will contract for 1 billion widgets a month from factory that has yet to start the production line. Can they really deliver at such a low, low price? Are they playing cute with the contract language? Many a technology company has gotten away with murder just by a few words in a contract.
Supportability Plans: Sure they can build a widget for half the cost of the other guy but the widget requires 10-times more costs in the long run to support it. Sometimes an investment in per unit cost upfront from a reputable manufacturer means that in the long-run you save money it would it takes to train, maintain, supply and support. This includes all those other “-ilities” such as maintainability, survivability, and reliability.
Project and Technical Management Maturity: How well do they manage the three constraints of cost, schedule, and performance? Can they show how they are taking me from A to B? Can they show me they are spending wisely? Can they predict problems with cost and schedule or do they react to it? Can they prove they not only are CMMI certified but they actually implement the processes and tools? Are they proactive or reactive? Do they understand the “geek” culture, especially necessary for largely software-based projects.
I have found that by looking at a company, project or product through these 5 “lenses”, wherein the priority of the five is relative and varies from investment to investment; you can get a pretty good “gut feel” as whether or not they will have a hit or a miss. Nothing of course is a guarentee but it has worked for me.