2/15/2000 | 5 MINUTE READ

Culture & the Improvement of the Design Process

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It isn’t just about the tools of the trade that are found in various places on the pages of this magazine. It is also about how those tools are deployed. In the area of rapid prototyping—the world of product simulation—an MIT researcher has some interesting thoughts about the implications of models for successful companies.


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During the past several months, we’ve looked at some rapid prototyping equipment in this magazine, like the system developed by the people at Mazak Corp. (Florence, KY) that permits users to manufacture functional crankshafts in a matter of hours so as to test out design assumptions; and the Precision Optical Manufacturing (Plymouth, MI) method of transforming metal powder into actual parts and molds through the use of a laser. And we’ve covered some of the new innovations in computer-aided design and engineering software, which permit the rapid creation and validation of math models that are eventually to become real products. In all cases, these new tools are about speed and creating models, about creating simulations of products-to-become.

Although Michael Schrage does discuss some new technologies that facilitate simulation (though not to the extent or degree done within these pages) in Serious Play: How the World’s Best Companies Simulate to Innovate (Harvard Business School Press; $27.50; 233 pp.), his book is more about the context of deployment, about the where and the how of simulation for market success.

Beyond Ideas.

One of Schrage’s fundamental ideas is that having ideas is not enough. Not even really good ideas. What’s important is that these ideas take form in such a way that other people can have their ideas about your idea, and, ideally, share them with you so that your idea is, via feedback, improved. It is all about interaction, about give-and-take. According to Schrage, "In world class companies, an interesting prototype emits the social and intellectual equivalent of a magnetic field, attracting smart people with interesting ideas about how to make it better." It should be noted that Schrage is a research associate at the MIT Media Lab, a place that certainly has more pull than that in which many of us toil.

Prototypes should be less about "This is the model" and more about, "Well, I think it oughta sorta be like this." While the former might be more grammatically correct and proper, that’s not the point. In fact, in some regards, according to Schrage, "the value of prototypes resides less in the models themselves than in the interactions—the conversations, arguments, consultations, collaborations—they invite." So it isn’t so much about a polymer model of a widget as much as it is the potential that the model creates. For Schrage, a prototype that works is one that goes beyond the fundamental fulfillment of functional requirements. Ideally, it becomes if not a full-blown rallying point for all functions that will be involved in the hoped-for success of the product (and by "all," customers are included, as well), then at least something that provokes, or causes to convene, a "community of interest," a group of people who are active in moving the model forward. And this may be, in some regards, messy, not proper.

But realizing the potential isn’t always as straightforward as it might be because some organizational cultures are more adept at interchange and exchange than others. Those that don’t provide the latitude for people to express their attitude would find the whole concept of "serious play" as being nothing short of treasonous preposterousness. "This is serious work, dammit!" they sputter with echoing outrage. Yet in what is arguably the most serious of serious command and control organizations, the military, war games are played to simulate what might actually happen and to improve the odds of success.

Nowadays, people within companies are intent on getting new products to market faster, which might lead to an argument against creating a sufficient number of prototypes. Rather, the modus operandi would be to go from the model to the real thing posthaste. But Schrage counters, "As a rule, the more prototypes and prototyping cycles per unit of time, the more technically polished the final product," and he cites the observation of one of the world’s leading industrial designers, David Kelley of IDEO (who, incidentally, has a background in manufacturing engineering, so he knows more than a little bit about what goes into creating and making great products), who, according to Schrage, "says it is consistently difficult to persuade companies that performing one more iteration is far less costly than releasing a flawed or incomplete product."

Detroit Models.

Schrage provocatively asks, "Can Detroit’s lagging competitiveness in the 1980s be blamed in part on its prototyping media?" The media of choice back then was, of course, clay. Which leads Schrage not only to answer his own question with "Absolutely," but allows him to go on to observe, "Clay was more than a medium; it was a metaphor for management." Although he goes on to make a brief comparison between Toyota’s stylists using CAD and GM’s using clay to lend credence to his position, later in the book he provides a more clear explanation of the Detroit prototyping culture that grew in the 1950s as a result of the concept work done (in clay) by people including Harley Earl of GM: "At General Motors in the 1950s, manufacturing engineers often cursed at the beautifully sculpted clay models from Harley Earl’s design. Yes, Earl’s ‘clays’ were regarded as bold and sexy, but the company’s top engineers considered many of the most elegant prototypes utterly unmanufacturable."

These clays, Schrage maintains, were not about interaction. Rather, they setup two separate tracks: the stylists’ prototype and the manufacturing model. And the objectives of the two were not the same. One example he cites of a problem of a lack of involvement of all parties in the process is the GM J-car of the 1980s. Schrage says a goal that GM management had at the time was to have reusability (perhaps a precursor to platform engineering?), so that’s what manufacturing encompassed in its approach. "On a pure cost-accounting basis, this new design paradigm was successful." But then the other shoe drops: "Unfortunately for GM, what auto reviewers and the automobile-buying public saw were fleets of look-alike/drive-alike cars with no distinctive design features to capture the imagination." And as you may recall, people bought lots of Tauruses, which had been designed by a team of people that took various aspects into account.

One of the key things to understand about prototyping is this: the "notion that models and simulations serve us best when they challenge our assumptions has profound implications for innovation management. The ability to respect the counterintuitive and embrace the unexpected is essential to both managing risk and to creating op- portunity. In practice, creative counterintuition drives innovation." And the companies that are innovative are going to leave the others behind.

Rapid prototyping is not about different modeling media, whether it be polymers or 3D renderings on a screen, whether it is a Mazak machine producing a working crankshaft or a POM unit creating a complex functional component. All of that are means to an end. The end is products that will be successful in the market. And if Schrage right, how those tools are used makes all of the difference.