Monday, January 7, 2013

Lean Design is Hard Work

By Al Norval

I was talking to a VP of Research recently who espoused the idea that “You can’t schedule inventions”. While I agree with him, he went on to say “Therefore, there is no merit in applying lean to design work”. That’s the part I disagree with him on. While the odd invention happens in a flash of brilliance most are the result of tirelessly applying the scientific method. For every discovery of penicillin as moldy bread there are a hundred others that are the result of a process of experimentation and testing the results against a hypothesis.

Experimentation, testing and trialing are processes and all processes are made up of both value added and non-value added steps. In design processes, like most processes, the vast majority of the lead-time is waste. Lean enables the elimination of waste in these processes so the time to cycle through these processes is reduced. The cycle time for an experiment may be reduced from 4 weeks to 2 weeks and eventually to 1 week. While no one can predict how many experimental cycles will be needed, what is certain is that the shorter the experimental cycle, the faster we learn and the faster we’ll reach our end goal.

Thomas Edison had a wonderful quote that captures this beautifully.

None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.
– Thomas Alva Edison

Using lean in design work allows us to reduce the amount of perspiration required.

Design is hard work. Using lean to eliminate waste in design processes allows us to focus more of our energy on things that truly drive value add to our customers. Isn’t that the purpose of design in the first place?


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