Approaching The Green Line In Design Process Optimization

Optimizing The Design Process

The Quest:  From concept, through the design process, and on to production in the shortest time with the least cash.  What is possible?

This is part 2.  In the previous post we presented ideas about a "Product Cost Trajectory Window".  The upper BLUE line having no limit really, and the GREEN line being the optimum for smooth sailing through the Product Development Process.  The RED line is an example showing the potential effect of Engineering Changes.

Time and Cost Effects in the Design Process

The key in optimizing to the GREEN line is getting on the right trajectory early in the process.  Every change has an effect (large or small), so it's beneficial to make the needed changes early in the process where the cost of change is far less.

OK, that's easy to say, but the nature of development is learning.  As we learn, we find things we had not before considered and that is most often the catalyst for change.  (Things that don't fit with our original ideas, or don't work like we thought.)  With that said, the real quest is to learn more sooner in the cycle.

Two Parts In Design Process Optimization

  • The first, most obvious optimization is to avoid the bumps of distraction - a topic we have already covered.
  • Second, set the trajectory for greater development early.

Again, it is easy to say, but much more difficult to implement.  Fortunately, a lot of great minds contemplate this second topic, and many good tools are available.  Some are buzz words (Brainstorming, Sprint, Scrum, Pivot, Design Review, etc.) and come in and out of popularity with various mutations and new names.  Don't worry about the names or the current popular trends, choose tools that work for you and your situation.  (The plural, TOOLS, being the operative - because one tool does not fit every job.)

The Big Picture

While the Goal is to bring a new product to market, the quest is to minimize the time and cost to do it.

This is a simplified illustration of The Product Development Process.  The consuming part is the Design > Prototype > Test loop.  It is a cycle, because most products go through several variations of the cycle before they are ready for production.  If it’s software, the cycle can be fast, but larger physical products can be quite long.  Either way, reducing the number of cycles in the design process is a huge step in minimizing time and expense.

Engineering Product Development Flow

How?  Trust me, if your goal is to accelerate the design process, then do it early, not in the Finishing cycles.  Why?  The Finishing Cycles of the design process are verification - where we dot the i's and cross the t's.  Skip these final steps and you are asking for a disaster in production.

No, the key is to learn and accelerate early.

Available Design Process Tools

When your only tool is a HAMMER, everything begins to look like a NAIL.

For the design process, we're talking about brain tools.  A lot of these have fun buzz names like "Brainstorming", "Sprint", "Scrum" and more.  Then there's the less exciting ones like "Research", "Customer Input", and "Quiet Contemplation".

All of these (and many more) are tools, but we often don't think of them that way.  I cringe when I see someone use pliers on a hex nut, just like I cringe when I hear someone say they had their Brainstorming session so they are ready to complete the design.  Most jobs require several tools, and the right tool for the right part of the job is the easiest way to accomplish it efficiently.

Fail early and Fail often.

This (and many variations of it) is another phrase in vogue.  There is a profound truth in it to be sure, but too often it is an excuse for NOT using the other tools and doing the homework First.  Each "Fail" is a cycle, with time and cost involved.  If we avoid the "Fails" by knowing not to go there in the first place, isn't that even better?

A More Productive Path

So, it's easy to criticize - that is why there are so many useless critics in the world.  So let's look at a more productive path and ways of using the tools effectively.  Here is one generalized approach that seems to work well.  This is the "Homework".  Remember, we are looking for the paradigm shift that allows us to see the elegant solution in the design process.  (Here is an example in managing conflicting constraints.)

  1. At the inception or introduction of the new idea, un-structured brainstorming (like conversations at lunch) often brings meaning and some substance to the potential product.  Throwing around ideas like "it should have this" or "this kind of customer will use it" are very productive.
  2. Once some vague substance is established, a more structured brainstorming session - with the right people - can be a great tool for gaining insight on the broad picture of features, customer use cases, and whether the idea is even worth pursuing.  The limits of brainstorming must be understood, because it may feel good to discuss the ends of the earth in a group, but design by committee is NOT a good way to make decisions.  Use Brainstorming for generating (and capturing) ideas and for expanding your view with insights from others.  Leave the ideas as ideas, and stop short of making decisions in Brainstorming sessions.
  3. Design PreparationNext, inject several steps of education and research.  These are in no particular order.  Use the applicable tools as needed.  But note, they are all needed.
    • Quiet Contemplation

      - is one of the best ways to think through the implications of all the potential ideas.  This, in conjunction with group reviews, is also the best way to produce a great design.

    • Customer Input

      - can give great insight for the best direction.  With product ideas swimming in your head, talking casually with potential customers can stimulate additional ideas / or solidify things you've considered.  For example:  When first presented with a painting devise idea, I went to a paint store and asked both customers and the service folks a bunch of questions about how to best paint a certain object.  I didn't tell them anything about what I was thinking, just asked questions - and learned a ton.

    • Research

      Don't short-cut yourself.  Know what others currently do.  Research patents.  Learn the details of potential customers.  Research similar products.  You have to know what others do, and you have to know your customer if you're going to make something they want.

    • Oh, and don't be so egocentric as to believe you already know your customers and industry.  There is always more to learn, and you will see it differently through the lens of your new product idea.  Don't follow this Case Study in missing a critical customer use case.
    • Design Reviews

      Working with your team to discuss ideas, share what you have learned, and make sense of collected data is paramount.  Later in the design process, design reviews are the time to contemplate impact, and sort through decisions as a great way to hone perspective.  The input of many is powerful.

  4. Once you have history and understanding, if you still feel like it is a good new product, then it is time for structured processes like "Sprint" or "Scrum" or others.  Do some research and figure out what will work best for your team.
  5. Build a Specification Document.  Make it, then post it visibly.  This is not a final document, so be prepared to update it frequently as you learn more through design Sprints, testing and customer research.  Hone the details through the design process.

With the above now well under way (you're never done with them), you're finally ready to dive into the design process.  Some things like "Sprint" theoretically get into the design process but not really.  Later Sprints can, but the initial ones for giving direction are for just that - direction.  If you do these steps in advance of the Design > Prototype > Test loop, then you'll be miles, and smiles, ahead.

More on Effective Progress

Though not exactly the topic, the principles involved in making an accurate engineering estimate are just the same thought processes in optimizing the design process.  Read our article about Engineering Quotes for additional perspective.

The Costly Pivot Paradigm

A popular buzzword in business these days is "Pivot".  It means making changes to better position the business or product to your customers.  What it really means is change your ideas till they fit.  Looking at the above graphic RED line, we see the cost of a "Pivot" or change is expensive, especially with more time and effort in the design process.

Sprint - by Jake KnappThe easiest and cheapest time to make changes is in the concept stage.  If you wait for customer input until an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), you've likely wasted a lot of time (and maybe money).  MVP is a great idea, and so is the concept of "Pivot".  However, the buzzword gives a value to the concept that doesn't belong.  Do the homework first, and pivot before the MVP, but don't use your customer as a guinea pig.

Another popular buzzword around business is "Sprint".  It is, like it sounds.  If you don't enjoy a strenuous push, you won't like this either.  I've seen them implemented in a couple different ways, but overall the concept seems to pull more thinking (and buy-in) earlier in the development cycle.  Just make sure you know what questions you're trying to answer, and keep your focus on them.

A successful product cycle may have several "Sprints" to guide the design process through various decisions.  The same is true of "Brainstorming".  Neither of these concepts are the end-all.  Use them, all the above, as the tools they are.  The right tool for the right job.

Eliminating The Changes

Can changes be eliminated?  Heavens NO.  Change is inevitable.  And, it's desirable.  The key to staying close to the GREEN line is honing the direction early.

One way to measure success in a project is how smooth the process advances from concept to production then into market acceptance.  If the design process goes relatively smooth, it means the homework is good in the beginning, and it is the right product for the right customer.

How can you know that in advance?  Yes, I'll say it again:  Do the homework.  You have to really know (or maybe become) your customer.  I use the example again and again from the bicycle industry.  The company's where the owners are avid cyclists do a much better job of having the right products at the right time.  And usually that creates success.

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