Arena Blog

Walkers Don’t Walk the Walk Without Design Thinking

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10480246 - approach through snow to future cityKuat Drive Yards was the foremost military shipbuilding corporation in the galaxy, designing weaponry for use by a variety of factions, including the Galactic Republic. The manufacturer’s products, which ran as distinct business units, from the flawless Imperial-class Star Destroyers design to the Walkers, which included the conceptually flawed All Terrain Armed Transport (AT-ATs).

Why was there such a big difference in quality between the two divisions?

While the Imperial-class Star Destroyers had a healthy quality culture that embraced “Design Thinking”, the Walker team suffered from what was deemed “product design arrogance” as described by an engineer who had experience with both divisions.

“Design Thinking is all about ‘Failing Forward’ — i.e. learning from user feedback and mistakes to iterate and build again — but better,” says the engineer. “The Design Thinking approach makes the discovery of failures part of a larger creative effort, and reduces defensive mental blocks. Let’s face it: sometimes you’re going to hear feedback that’s going to hurt, but the ideation and creative investigation of this feedback can lead to success.”

The Imperial Destroyers division had a healthy culture of true continuous improvement by breaking problem solving down into the following steps: “Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test… and repeat.” “This team actually listened to customer feedback and that was the key to it delivering quality Imperial Destroyer products,” says the engineer.

On the other hand, the AT-AT division was known to openly rebuff the tenets of Design Thinking, which set a negative tone for both its Development and Quality teams, who in turn offered little empathy for the needs of their users and customers. Marching full steam ahead while ignoring feedback early in the design cycle resulted in poorly conceived prototypes.

Some samples of pilot and trooper feedback ignored by the AT-AT design team:

  • “It’s a large lumbering target with almost no defensive capabilities except two primary and two secondary laser cannons on the head.”
  • “The neck and joints could be easily destroyed by even light weaponry—or even cables.”
  • “The Walker’s pressurized cockpit is so easily compromised that pilots are forced to wear specialized suits.”
  • “Must kneel like an elephant to offload troops and supplies, thus leaving it vulnerable to attack.”

“Failing forward early on in the iterative process is good,” said the engineer. “Watching your AT-AT helplessly buckle and fall forward during a critical battle—not so much.”

The intimidating-looking AT-ATs were presented to Darth Vader as a present on his birthday. “Happy birthday Lord Vader — I hope you like crap!” yelled the drunken engineer from across the banquet room as he hoisted back his bottle. It was an outburst that undermined the authority of his superiors, who quickly transferred him over to the Star Destroyer division. “Yeah, I got choked out by Vader,” confesses the engineer. “But I’m actually glad I did it because I wanted to leave that team…and besides I always wanted to see if that was just folklore or he could really pull it off.”

So what does Design Thinking have to do with Quality? Quality processes typically involve identification of a problem, root cause analysis, immediate containment, and corrective and preventive actions. If you think of Empathizing and Defining as key tools in defining and investigating your quality issue, while Ideation, Prototyping and Testing are critical components in development of corrective and preventive actions, you will see immediate parallels.

As the team adopts Design Thinking into processes over time, they are able to refer to past lessons learned to inform new successful products that meet user needs. And this is where the documentation of feedback, collaboration and ideation in a modern Quality system can be helpful.

Arena’s all-in-one Quality Management Solution provided the Star Destroyer division a comprehensive quality management solution to answer the rigors of compliance, avoid costly mistakes, and maximize competitive advantage. “The entire cross-functional team including supply chain partners can see quality actions, participate in resolving issues quickly, and see the complete quality history in real time,” said the engineer.

Producing Quality documentation in a culture of Design Thinking, and storing it cross-functionally in a way that engineers, operations, manufacturing and quality teams can all access and contribute, can drive process improvements and product leaps that will lead to greater business success.

“The AT-AT division has always been dysfunctional and I don’t see it changing,” said the engineer. “They neither have the quality solution nor the culture to succeed. My advice to new college graduates is to steer clear of that toxic environment and apply to the Star Destroyer division. It’s a really great bunch of guys who care about building quality weaponry.”