A fast and rough draft of a plan or prototype can be the best approach

A fast and rough draft of a plan or prototype can be the best approach

July 2018

By David Griffin, Principal Consultant – Manufacturing Innovation & Automation

Numerous personality types exist within organisations, fulfilling different roles.  When a new product is developed, innovation is needed, but many key stakeholders are not natural innovators.

They may be analytical, detail-orientated or results-focused, but not creative. But, how they engage with the process has a great impact on the outcome.

It’s said that a designer can imagine something that doesn’t yet exist. Conversely, non-designers find it difficult to discuss or even conceptualise abstract future systems.

Two engineers sit at a desk in front of computers testing out prototypes using virtual reality tools

If an analytical person is asked “what other features should we include?” they are being asked to innovate.  If, however, they are shown a list of possible features and asked which ones they need, they’re not being asked to do so.

It’s thereby much easier to edit or critique a document than to write it from scratch.  Often the best and fastest way to get input is to write a first draft and then get it out there for criticism.

Some requirements will immediately be shot down at first review.  That’s fine, because:

  1. The person who shoots them down has to replace it with something better
  2. Everyone is now engaged in the process

Create something to be knocked down

This first document used to be known as an ‘Aunt Sally’ – named after an old-fashioned fairground skittles game.  The sooner the first draft is discussed, the better. It will show where designers and end-users have differences of understanding.

Woman wearing white shirt in office plays miniature skittles on a white table top with small red pins

The number of people who can write a good requirements’ specification is small, but the number who can spot improvements to a draft is much greater.  So, if you want to solicit input from as many stakeholders as possible, give them something to critique early.

Generally, engineers focus on de-risking some key performance or functionality challenge early.  This often results in a technology demonstration that looks nothing like a prototype and to the lay stakeholder this may appear unimpressive.   Yet buy-in at this stage is important, so there is real value in taking the extra step to make something look a bit more like the real thing.

This may involve adding a non-functional GUI or making a 3D-printed case.  This may not strictly represent technical de-risking, but showing stakeholders something tangible can often bring hidden requirements or constraints to the fore. It also allows non-creatives to give input throughout the process.

This could be where someone volunteers the information (that they assumed everyone knew) that the device has to be operated one-handed or must stand up on a table or asks where the USB port (that may not have been specified) will be located.

Fail fast, fail often

There’s a popular expression: ‘fail fast, fail often’. Meaning, test your ideas in the marketplace as soon as possible, learn lessons as quickly as practicable, and be prepared to throw away what doesn’t work.

Though currently fashionable, it’s not how every organisation operates.  Some prefer extensive market research, focus groups and internal product testing before taking the idea public, and in some circumstances this is appropriate, especially when commercially sensitive.

Two designers sketch out ideas with rough drafts on the table in front of them

But there are certainly times when the information you learn from getting something (even a non-functional model) in front of a customer quickly saves far greater expense down the line.

This may require making a working version of the minimum viable product that incorporates decisions you may not feel sufficiently informed to make yet.  In this case, it’s necessary to choose something – your best informed guess. And then accept that being wrong is not catastrophic.

R&D is about learning, and every day you sit behind closed doors refining a product that hasn’t seen the light of day yet, you’re not learning as fast as you could be.

It’s been said that in the old world, the large ate the small.  In today’s world, the fast eat the slow.

There are a couple of key requirements for being able to ‘fail fast, fail often’.  You must be able to generate a passable working prototype quickly. And you must be able to do it sufficiently cost-effectively to be able to live with throwing away the failures.

So that first prototype may not be made the same way as the final product, perhaps using standard components, off-the-shelf modules and rapid prototyping.

Getting the organisation right is also important

Knowing vendors who can turn models into parts overnight using additive manufacturing is only one part of what’s required.  It’s also necessary to support this with appropriate internal systems and infrastructure.

Build an organisation that facilitates failing fast without employees needing to resort to ‘skunkworks’ behaviour. Finally, there’s another good reason for the ‘Aunt Sally’. It gets the process started.

Most writers know that the first draft may be discarded. But it’s better to write something than to stare at an empty page.  Better to build something than keep refining the specification!

David Griffin engineer at 42T

If you would like to find out more, contact David:
answers@42T.com | +44

David is a Principal Consultant at 42T and is an industry experienced mechanical engineer who spent a decade developing bespoke test and assembly automation, in diverse fields ranging from motor winding to asthma inhaler manufacture, several years developing and optimising solvent removal technology and continuous chemistry systems. He also spent a period in industrial inkjet printing system development.

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