I Was There When We Prototyped Prototyping

Did the Greeks prototype the Parthenon

Design thinking is a great way to explore new solutions for problems. It is a methodology, but somehow that does not quite capture all you get from it. Like lean thinking any many other “methodologies,” to do them well you must re-orient how you approach problems. I would describe design thinking as part-methodology, part-philosophy, and part-cultural viewpoint.

There are five key pieces to design thinking: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. As you go through a design thinking exercise, you repeat the steps many times. You go through cycles until you get to your destination.

The prototype step is an interesting addition. It forces you to go beyond theorizing. It adds visual and tactile elements to what otherwise might be mind games. It causes participants in the exercise to think through how the solution will work in real life.

Early Prototyping

Flash back to the mid-1990s. I run a manufacturing facility and have been deeply immersed in lean thinking. I have trained in Japan and at my facility in the U.S. we do lean thinking continuously. Our success with lean has been so great that we have attracted many large, key customers. Demand outstrips supply.

At my facility, we make bookcases, file cabinets (vertical and lateral), and desks out of steel. We also make some wood furniture. As much as we have reduced waste and improved workflow, we still face constraints. As a company, we need more bookcases and the plants making bookcases are at capacity. We need a new production line.

Our company had signed up for lean manufacturing by going all in. All departments in all facilities used lean thinking, from lawyers to production facilities. I was asked to have my team design and implement a new bookcase production line. The company needed the line in two or three months. But that didn’t mean I could skip the lean thinking steps. Before I could get approval to spend any money on capital assets (read: machinery), I had to go through lean.

We put together teams and got to work. We mapped out the processes and did time estimates. We interviewed equipment operators. We looked for ways to reduce waste and improve our designs. And then we did something unusual for the time. We went to a nearby, unused warehouse and built our production line.

Of course, we did not use real machines. We used some wood, twine, and cardboard. We built a box for each machine. The machines were laid out precisely where they would be on our proposed production line. The twine marked walkways. After our production line was built, we started running product.

We had disassembled some bookcases. Our workers (engineers, me, some line personnel) would carry each piece on the route it would go through the production line. As you carried your piece, you would stop at work stations along the way. Each work station had a draft standard work sheet including times for each operation. We measured distance traveled between work stations. We watched for safety risks.

After we ran several cycles, we reviewed the data, came up with improvements, and did the whole thing over again. In fact, we ran our production line many times over several days. The layout kept changing. It became more compact, with less travel time and fewer pinch points. It took us two weeks to do the prototyping and testing, but at the end we had a good starting point for the real production line.

We documented the entire prototyping process. Our packet requesting approval to buy the machines needed for the line took the reader from our first prototype to the final version. It showed the percent improvement in each metric. It included pictures, diagrams, and sample standard work sheets. It also included notes from our interviews with line personnel, and comments from line personnel who participated in a walk through of the layout proposed in the package.

Our proposal was approved, we started the new line on time, and we dug ourselves out of the bookcase backlog. Within a month of starting, our bookcase line was more efficient (higher productivity) than most other bookcase lines in the company. Had we gone with our initial design, our prototype production metrics showed we would have had the least productive line in the company.

There Were Many Prototypes Before We Adopted Prototyping

We tend to forget that many new ideas are re-purposed old ideas. My team and I were not the first to use prototyping. The Google Ngram Viewer shows the word “prototype” in print back to 1800 (as far as the Viewer goes). The word itself is a derivative of a Greek word meaning “primitive form”.

For service professionals, prototyping sometimes seems strange. But if you think of it in lean terms, the strangeness can turn into appreciation for what it adds and what it avoids. It adds the opportunity to get early, meaningful feedback on ideas. Why go full-speed ahead before you have some feedback on whether the idea meets the customer’s needs or is feasible? Put in lean startup (Eric Ries) terms, it is a chance to test the minimum viable product.

You also get the chance to work out the kinks in a process. Try walking through the steps, mapping them and putting them on standard work sheets. Where are there gaps, overlaps, and clashes? What doesn’t make sense? Do not assume everything will work the way “it should,” because not everyone shares the same vision (and it gives new meaning to walking in your client’s shoes).

Prototyping existed long before our warehouse production line and long before design thinking. But, it is one of the most underused steps in the legal services world today. It also can be quite fun and a way for you to bond with your client.


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About: Ken is a speaker and author on innovation, leadership, and on the future of people, process, and technology. On Medium, he is a “Top 50” author on innovation, leadership, and artificial intelligence. You can follow him on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and follow him on Facebook.