Techcityblog.co.uk is very lucky to have a second guest blog from Iain Cameron who worked for 25 years in the Department of Trade and Industry and Cabinet Office. He also worked for over ten years on business improvement in the UK automotive supply chain. Recently he has been developing a start-up, Industrial Strategy Communications and has worked on projects with Oxford University, the UK Commission for Skills and SMMT Industry Forum.
“This week I had a chance to join in a rapid prototyping workshop with a French multi-national energy management company. They had brought together ten of their country heads for a week long learning and development event delivered in London by companies from Denver Colorado. One of these Denver companies has made rapid prototyping a speciality drawing on the expertise of a product developer who worked on the early stages of Google Glass using this technique. A short video from this developer was part of the preparation for the workshop which was mostly given over to practical work. We were also introduced to a sixfold categorisation of prototypes and provided with resources such as glue, straws, cardboard etc.
I first came across rapid prototyping (RP) as an advanced manufacturing technique which used methods similar to those which have become known now as 3D printing. As part of time compression in product development, these techniques mean that prototypes can be rendered much more quickly so the suitability of various design features could be assessed more quickly and overall development time reduced.
From this point of departure, RP has evolved into an approach which is quite similar to Lean Startup and which is applicable to a much wider range of business situations. The key insight is that until we get user response we can only guess about the value of any particular product feature. Prototypes may be very crude but provided a key feature is modelled, a user test can deliver a useful result. Something similar is currently being used in contemporary software development under headings such as Agile and SCRUM.
RP is rapid because each cycle of build and test is quick and because a large number of quick prototyping cycles can yield a viable project in a short overall duration. RP as developed in this way is part of a larger paradigm – Design Thinking – which brings together creativity and rationality in a constructive synthesis.
Design Thinking includes a seven phase project structure – like the ‘problem’ acronym. This compares with the five phase DMAIC cycle in Six Sigma and the four phase Deming Cycle. The European Workplace Innovation program which is currently gathering pace has cut this down to a two phase cycle – do, reflect – and the fast prototyping cycles in RP may well fit this simple pattern.
For the purposes of the workshop we were presented with a corporate issue to address in terms of recruiting people with the talent to succeed at senior level in the company. The practical side of the workshop kicked off with some collective brainstorming on what characteristics such talented people might have. The heart of the RP exercise was to develop a method for locating good candidates and persuading them to apply. The members of the delivery organisation acted the user role with verve and imagination.
A key feature in knowledge management is the selection of issues to be tackled and the methods to be deployed. Ideally this selection also incorporates a loop structure under the models of double or triple loop learning. It is for debate whether RP can be used in these higher level loops or whether it is best suited to practical execution at the first level. The decision of the energy management company to expose to RP in teams which mixed insiders and outsiders is an interesting strategic choice from this point of view. Presumably the feeling is that while there is a strong tradition of successful product and service development within the company, the tool box portfolio needs to be expanded.
The seven phases within Design Thinking are Define, Research, Ideation, Prototype, Chose, Implement Learn. Each of these seven can be broken down into substages and for Prototyping these are:
Combine, expand and refine ideas
Create multiple drafts
Seek feedback from a diverse group of users including potential users
Present a selection of ideas to the client
Reserve judgement and maintain neutrality
Create and present actual working prototype(s)
RP fits best into the first three substages on these definitions. However within the version of RP presented in the workshop there was the more ambitious claim that with as many as fifty short cycle build and test cycles a process of gradual accretion takes place so that a good solution can take shape. In support of this one can point to the success of evolution in the natural world whereby fantastic design solutions arise by what is essentially a trial and error approach. Within biochemistry fruitflies are often used for genetic experimentation because they are naturally fast prototypers with a conveniently short reproduction cycle.
Observers of the contemporary business scene find that much cause of project failure remains under resourcing by senior managers. There is a maxim in project management that of the trio, Quality, Low Cost and Delivery on Time, you can have any pair but it is very difficult to deliver a quality outcome within a short timescale with lean resources. RP comes with the promise that it might be a method of disrupting this QCD constraint.”