By Tim Springer, Ph.D.
Published in the April 2009 issue of Today’s Facility Manager
Nineteen years ago, I was working with my late friend and mentor, Mike Tatum. We were charged with developing innovative workspace solutions for a large Texas energy company (no, not Enron). In the process of helping these folks figure out what workplace strategy and solution would best meet their needs, Tatum and I developed the idea behind this column: think big, do small, learn fast.
We felt the time and money involved in the traditional approach to planning and delivering workspaces was inappropriate and insufficient to meet the needs of this organization. So we suggested an approach to developing workspace solutions that we called “rapid prototyping.”
You can imagine my surprise when, not long ago, I found a certain furniture manufacturer claiming it invented rapid prototyping for workplaces. This is simply not true. I don’t mean to sound like Al Gore when he claimed he had invented the Internet, but this idea did not originate with a furniture company. Even though I’m pretty sure our project was the first example of rapid prototyping workspaces (and I know the aforementioned furniture company took great interest in our approach several years later), it’s not like we created something new or invented a new process. We simply borrowed from other areas of design and development to deliver more effective solutions more efficiently.
It has always struck me as curious that workplaces seem to be one of the few, if not the only, designed solution that isn’t tested by users before it is put into service. If you think about it, almost anything that is designed—automobiles, computers, jet aircraft, and almost every consumer product—is tested in prototype form before it is put into production and offered to users. Why don’t we do that with workplaces?
The idea is simple. A team of researchers, planners, and designers collects relevant information from users; defines functional requirements; engages users in identifying possible solutions; mocks up prototype workspaces; tests them while collecting user input and feedback; refines the solution; and repeats the testing until few additional improvements are suggested. Many industries that design and produce products call this usability testing. Makes sense, right? Then why do so few workplaces go through this process?
The traditional approach to workplace planning relies on a project management process and schedule. Once a budget is approved, a timeline is constructed, and the process is set in motion. Someone (usually a designer or architect) collects information, sometimes verifies that information, and then goes off and creates concepts and designs a solution. Often, the interval between initial information collection and implementation of the designed solution is many months, or even years, apart. The design concept may be shown to a small group—usually the internal project team—and suggestions for changes and decisions about solutions are sometimes made. Very seldom are any users provided an opportunity to offer input. The process most often relies on people’s ability to read and understand drawings and floor plans in two dimensions. Once the decision point is reached, the designer fits the solution to the available space and rolls out the design onto the floor plan. The products, finishes, and furnishings are ordered, delivered, and installed. Once everything is complete and the solution is ready, people are moved and work begins.
The traditional approach assumes the designer and the project team guessed correctly about which information was appropriate and important to collect, what it meant, and how best to interpret it to provide the functionality the users’ require. If they are very lucky and very good, the design team delivers a workspace solution that supports the users and the work they need to perform. In more than 30 years studying and planning workspaces, having worked with some of the best minds in the business, more often than not, this approach seldom yields the best possible solution. Much too often, the delivered solution requires many change orders to fix and fine tune the workspace so it is acceptable and usable—not optimal.
The number of change orders following installation of a traditional workspace planning project attests to how close the original guess was to being “spot on.” The cost of the change orders can often approach or even exceed the cost of the original design work. As Tatum once noted, “If you don’t take time to do it right in the first place, what makes you think you’ll ever find time and money to fix it later?”
Many arguments are raised against engaging in activity that deviates from the traditional “approve, fund, plan, build” project cycle. Some argue it takes too much time. Others claim it adds cost. Yet, our experience shows rapid prototyping does neither. It does allocate time and money differently. The result is often delivered in less time with less total expenditure—especially considering the total commitment of time and money of the traditional approach including post-occupancy changes.
In today’s economic climate, it may be difficult to change one’s approach to planning workspaces and spending money. But what better time than now to introduce a process and procedure for developing effective workplaces with a much smaller commitment of time and money? Prototyping workspaces now will position organizations to take advantage of tested solutions when opportunities arise…and they will arise.
Rapid prototyping workspaces is not a new idea from some furniture company. It is a tried and tested approach to developing user-based workspace solutions that work on a small scale before committing to the large scale. Remember—think BIG, do small, learn fast. It makes sense—as well as dollars and cents. That’s the way I see it from where I sit, but then again, I could be wrong.
Springer ispresident and founder of Geneva, IL-based HERO, inc. andfrequently writes and speaks on a wide variety of issues affectingorganizations, work, and workplaces. For past columns from Springer, go to From Where I Sit.
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