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What software people can learn from great Lego design – YOW 2012

By | Agile, Communication, Development, People | One Comment

Lego software design rule 1: design only in white bricks

At YOW! Australia in Melbourne I had the pleasure of introducing and getting to know John-Henry Harris, a product designer at Lego in Denmark. Originally from the UK, his passion for product design, and a love of Lego saw him land the job of many designers’ dreams at a young age.

His talk was about design and innovation, and I was struck by the parallels to the non-brick world – which is why YOW had him at opening spot on Day 1 of the conference’s agile stream of course!

John Henry Harris Lego dragons

Here’s 14+1 Lego design and innovation principles to consider (John Henry has kindly added a 15th in response to our blog post):

  1. Design using only white bricks: as you can see from the illustration above (my very own resident lego designer’s handiwork), making something look great with only white bricks is HARD. Your model immediately goes a bit flat, there’s no flashy accents of colour to rely on, and no detail – the essential form must stand on its own two feet. Then, when you get the design right, add colour a little at a time and ensure every colour adds some value. In software land, think Balsamiq over Powerpoint as your IDE.
  2. No new bricks – treat this constraint as a challenge to your inventiveness. Of course
    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    every designer wants new bricks developed to enable a special corner or moving feature of their model, but the cost of moulds and development is high, think tens of thousands. Now, Lego certainly isn’t shy of investing in new brick designs, as the Star Wars series shows, but every one must be heavily justified and be widely re-useable. Sound familiar to any Open Source guardians of the core application code? Every Lego designer also knows that somewhere in the world, their name is being cursed when a model rebuild is foiled by a failure to find the exact, rare, tiny 1 x 1 brick needed – the one with the hollow back and a rebated front side, rather than a stud.

  3. Always make options to test. John-Henry told us the story of a Lego technic bulldozerbulldozer model, where from Day 1 the team decided they would build two discrete options – a highly featured, and slightly larger model; and a smaller one, that used up a chunk of the design budget by adding a motor and some moving parts. The team felt confident that the test audience would choose the scale and functionality of the larger, non-motorised model over the mechanised version. Doubtless they even wondered out loud occasionally about the sense of going through the complete design process for 2 things almost the same, when one was clearly the superior product. The final result is above – mechanised won the day, against all predictions. Size ain’t everything.
  4. Involve your customers in design: Lego makes a habit of bringing in realLego-Emerald_Night_Train customers to co-create some products and solve tough engineering problems within other lines. In 2009 the Emerald Night train set was the first train to be made in many years from the standard Lego system, and AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) with expertise in trains were brought in to work out solutions for motor durability and help with engineering of the set. That is so much more than sending out a research team or conducting a survey on your website – do your products have enough goodwill and the love of your customers to ask them to be involved with design? Have you the humility to work alongside them? Chances are we’ll all spend big dollars on ‘consultants’ instead.
  5. Work in teams. Here’s a major overlap between Lego product design processes and agile software design and development. Multi-disciplinary teams are core to the innovation and design process in both places. There is a team space, shared and individual work environments, plans out in the open. I think our world of business agility is starting to understand the power of this – the Activity Based Working (ABW) movement in architecture is starting to build environments to suit a collaborative work style (with BankWest in Perth being one to see if you want your socks knocked off by futuristic socio-technical building design).
  6. Marketers and designers sit together from Day 1. It’s a subset of Principle #5 I suppose, but so often missed in software development projects. The diversity of personalities just adds to the creative environment, and much time is saved having the ‘go to market’ people in the room. This is grossly absent in most projects relying on software development to succeed. Marketing are too often the team on another level or in another building.
  7. Test with real customers – kids! A great story came up at YOW! to illustrate whether you really
    One of JHH's Creator sets (Fiery Legend) - showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    One of JHH’s Creator sets (Fiery Legend) – showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    know your customer, or whether you’re only making what your well-meaning product owner or business analyst has had inspiration to build for a perceived customer need. Testing Lego dragon designs (I think it was a dragon, might have just been a monster), the team waited anxiously to see of the efforts that had gone into the engineering of an upright walking beast had paid off. It had been a huge mechanical conundrum, constraining the leg joints with pieces drawn from sets across the group – a masterpiece in design. The end result was a shock to the team – to paraphrase the children’s choice: “why would we pick a dragon that walks, when this one fllliiiiesssssssss…” as the child picks up another model and simply swooshes it through the air in their outstretched hand.

  8. Take pride in building to a cost envelope. This follows on from Principle #2 to some extent, and  I reflect is core to many arguments I have witnessed in the past over the benefits of agile methods of working. The simplest resolution of the “how much will this damned thing cost me?” standoff between product owners, accountants and IT is to promise to deliver the highest priority features within an envelope of money. As Dave Thomas wisely once said: “budgeting is easy – simply find out how much money is your CEO willing to bet on this idea”. Building to a cost is an up-front constraint at Lego, and people’s energy goes into designing an innovative solution that kids will love, not fighting over budgets.
  9. Have coaches – coaches are part of the team at Lego, and designers get to spend time being a Technical coach or a Model coach. For many of us in agile-land, coaches are too often one row too many on a budget.xls file. How exactly do we expect to develop our skills at working with agility, which is a mindset founded on continuous innovation and improvement? Maybe to keep costs down, just one person on the team is nominated to read a book on agile, or get certified? Luna Tractor’s experience has been that your optimism will not pay off.
  10. Design rules come from deep user insight – if you are a Lego nerd like me, you
    Another JHH Creator set - 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    Another JHH Creator set – 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    will doubtless marvel at the instruction books, where no words are used to ensure universality of the document. But one thing you may not have noticed is a subtle product design rule around very similar parts being required in the same small build sequence. Say, a 1 x 6 and a 1 x 8 red brick. Not allowed! Why? Because a child searching for a 1 x 6, then a 1 x 8 brick amongst the tipped out packet of 200 bricks in a set is going to get frustrated, repeatedly finding and attempting to fit the wrong brick. Which to a young child looks like the right brick. Apple iTunes 11 developers, are you listing to this?

  11. The hardest products to design are the ones where re-use is mandatory. The Lego Creator series is a tough assignment. Essentially, 1 box of bricks, 3 different models within a theme required. With as few bits as possible left over after each model. Think code re-use is a challenge?
  12. Build with your left hand, or with gardening gloves. That is how far the Lego designers will go to emulate what it is like to be 4 years old and trying to pick up and manipulate the smaller pieces in the Lego sets (for kids just graduating from Duplo). In software, how often do we think of constraining our skill when using and testing our product? We’re all whiz-kid digital people, do we really imagine we can know what it is like to be a ‘normal’ person? When was the last time you explained search engine optimisation or the internet to a friend from a non-IT world?
  13. The Lego design team reviews the product – just like a retro/showcase, and you’d better be ready to have your say. With Lego, products may stay in design mode for months, and I dare say that it gets tedious, even for a Lego-nutcase to have to rebuild the same item over and over for weeks at a time, searching for better ways and faster, stronger engineering solutions. The team provides the context, the support and the feedback so that invention can be turned to innovation. Problem-solving is so often a team exercise in both our worlds.
  14. Every product can be analog and digital, so be open to options. The design team working on Lego’s Ninjago models used story-telling to develop characters and context for the individual mini-figures. Their clever solution to stimulating their ideas was to hire a cartoonist, who would sketch story boards and story lines and put them on the wall. Now, art imitates life, whichScreen shot 2012-12-16 at 4.23.45 PM imitates art, as the Ninjago TV series is a great success alongside the toys. Traditional merchandising turned on its head! Do you have the creative bandwidth to imagine games, video, books, and social media as well as your starting software product? Or is that someone else’s job in your company?
  15. Have fun – play is an essential part of the process of invention and innovation. You can see John-Henry talk on this subject at TedX here. I opened the day with a quote from JHH’s website: “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” – George Bernard Shaw.

And when you’re as good at playing as John-Henry Harris, you might one day create something as awesome as this. Santa, are you listening?

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

Luna USA Field Trip: the lunar lander – minimum viable product

By | Agile, Space, Technology | No Comments

Field trips to the Smithsonian are highly recommended by Luna Tractor! The lunar lander LM-2 is stored in the Washington DC Air and Space Museum.

We’ve already referred to the Lunar landing Module (LM in NASA parlance) as the greatest machine ever built. The chance to see a replica in Washington DC was very exciting.

So imagine my amazement to discover that the machine is NOT a replica. It is LM-2, the module they built as a spare unit in anticipation of something going wrong with one of the others. As it happened, things went smoothly (if you don’t count Apollo 13) and it stayed in the shed at Cape Canaveral.

The lesson that the Lunar Module teaches us is fitness for purpose – an old definition of quality that has stood the test of time. Take a close look at the panels on the module – it is riveted together with the bare minimum of materials to keep it light.

“Why isn’t it shaped like a plane” asked my traveling agile assistant, whom we shall call ‘Retro-Boy’. The answer lies in the fact that aerodynamics are somewhat irrelevant in a vacuum.

The modular design of these craft allowed the lessons of the previous Apollo mission to be incorporated quickly into the next mission.

Luna USA Field Trip: Wright Brothers – less money, less resources, more innovative

By | Agile, Disruption, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, a treasure trove of lean and agile lessons for Luna Tractorites.

Simon Sinek has a great talk on the rivalry at play in the early part of the 20th century to successfully fly a heavier than air, powered aircraft.

It is an important tale for agilists, as the small budget and time/ weather constraints faced by the Wright’s forced them into a design that was low cost, modular, easily repaired, and could be iterated on very rapidly. With which they killed the competition. I won’t repeat it – check out the Ted Talk I have linked above.

Having generated the design for the innovative flexible wing surface to allow more control, the Wright brothers developed tools to hypothesise, test and redeploy elements of the planes in days and weeks, where the opposition (funded 20x better) took months.

Their work with a primitive wind tunnel enabled them to test quickly, and they questioned everything – including apparently proven mathematical formulae for key factors like lift co-efficients.

This image of the brothers’ workshop taken from the Smithsonian exhibition.

In the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum there is an exhibition devoted to the brilliance of the Wright brothers, which attributes their success to genius, and the short cycles of innovation and testing real, flying, machines.

The star of the exhibition is the original plane. Yes, the exact original, with new canvas stretched onto the frame in the 1980s to replace the rotted old 1903 covering. Three hundred feet in the air, strung up in a wooden, wire and canvas device, it is the best definition of a ‘commit’ that I can imagine.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is not the first flight in 1903 – but that only 10 years later, a plane successfully crossed the Atlantic. The next big barrier, a private plane in space, was 100 years away.

From Insight to Strategy to Innovation – while standing at the Toyworld Checkout

By | Communication, Customers, Disruption, People, Strategy | 2 Comments

Listen up lean and agile thinkers. This is a simple illustration of the kind of things that make innovation and strategy easy – a gift from someone on a toy shop counter that probably earns less than $20 an hour. Are you this smart? This brave?

With a 10 year old in my household, it’s little wonder I am a fan of Lego. From my own childhood memories, to their inspiring recovery from a near death business experience (after their long-standing patent for bricks expired) just by listening to customers and innovating the product accordingly, it is all good.

One of their recent products puzzled and infuriated me though. It is a single Lego minifigure in an opaque cellophane packet – ideal for for party bags for kid’s birthdays; the child at the checkout who MUST spend their pocket money on something (and they are cheap, $4 to $5 each); or perhaps the serious collector to get some custom mini figure accessories and body parts.

Yet, you can’t see which one of the 16 in the series you are going to end up with.

I will thus confess to having spent far too much time at many a big store’s Lego counter with Mr 10, eyes shut, feeling the packets to detect the slightest variation in the components to figure out if the character is Jane Torvill (uncool!) or Toxic Space Engineer (cool!).

Children’s (and collecter of greater years, ahem) ingenuity and social network savvy soon solved it – for Series 1 and 2 they quickly figured out the bar codes were different and published the key. So Lego moved the goalposts, using a single bar code and a system of dots on the packaging to differentiate figures in Series 3. The kids cracked it again.

Series 4 onwards you have no chance of detecting the difference from the packaging. The secondary market on eBay for these figures erupted, and the popularity of the series continued to grow. Business is booming. Yet I’m still grumpy about it. Why?

Why did Lego want the figure to be a surprise? Was that part of their strategy for the product? Perhaps I will never know, and Mr 10 and I quickly became disenfranchised by the whole thing.

So imagine my surprise, when dropping into Toyworld Palmerston North in NZ last week to find the Lego minifigure packets on the checkout counter, with each figure individually labeled with a hand-written number against the official Lego key. “You can’t do that”; “that’s naughty”; “that’s against the rules” were all thoughts that leapt into my rule-obeying lizard brain. Flabbergasted, I managed to regain enough English language ask why they’d done it.

And for the readers who are struggling with why the hell I am writing about toyshops, this is called INSIGHT and is the most valuable commodity you can possess when developing something new. It is Dan Pink’s ‘purpose’ and Simon Sinek’s ‘why’ in the words of a 20 year old shop clerk:

“I just saw the looks on the faces of the kids – so disappointed that they got a cheerleader when they wanted a deep sea diver, and the conflict they had, knowing they had to be grateful, but had chosen a useless gift”.

Now, agilists, here comes the STRATEGY bit – how will you do something about that problem your customer savvy product owner has found a really sharp insight about:

“Did you get an official cheat sheet from Lego on how to do it?” I asked.

“No, no – there isn’t one. We just had time while on the checkout and watching the door, so we checked each one individually, just like the kids would do.”

INNOVATION simply comes from making this a habit now, knowing things like there are only 2 robots in the latest boxes of 100 or so mini-figures, and thinking about which of their customers might really value that robot.

“The hair on number 3 in that set there is cool for making Call of Duty characters” trots out Mr 10 to the girl behind the counter. “Really? My brother is so into Call of Duty – he’ll love that one”. Minifigure #3, the uncool, pyjama-clad kid with the teddy bear just went from ‘can’t shift’ to ‘can’t keep in stock’.

That is called GROWTH.

If you’re smart, you’ll be down to Toyworld in Palmy and hire that lady on the counter for your agile innovation team. She gets it 100%.

Great Engineering Lasts – The U-2 Spy Plane and the SR 71 Blackbird.

By | Agile, Development, Lean, Space, Technology | 4 Comments

We spoke at YOW this year on the topic of innovation and agile over 6 decades, highlighting the Agile and Lean principles we see in space and engineering projects. From the 1930s we talked about the Cabinet War rooms and that deserves a whole post of its own as we continue to expand our understanding of how physical spaces enable and impact the people and results.  From the 1940s we talked about Lockheed Martin and their Skunkworks which we’ve written about before.  From the 1950s we looked at some of the magnificent engineering created by that same Skunkworks team… The Agile movement may only be 10 years old, but the principles and the evidence that it works goes back way further than that.  We’ll write more reflections on YOW itself at some point, but today you get one of the lessons that most appeals to us.

The U-2 Spy Plane

When the U-2 first flew in 1955, it was an accident.  A high speed taxi test saw it rolling down the runway at 70 knots at which point its sailplane wing generated enough lift and it took off into the air unexpectedly.  At the other extreme, its cruising altitude of 70,000 feet is referred to by pilots as coffin corner; at this height its stall speed is a mere 10 knots slower than its maximum speed.

The balance is so critical on the U-2 that the cameras had to use a split film setup with reels on one side feeding forward while those on the other side feed backward, thus maintaining a balanced weight distribution through the whole flight.

The plane is incredibly difficult to land because of the lift cushion under the wing as it comes close to the ground.  It lands on two inline ‘bicycle wheels’ and the wing tips also land and skid on the ground on titanium plates.

Perhaps the most amazing U-2 fact, and the reason we consider it such a testament to great engineering, is that it’s still in active service today.

The SR-71 Blackbird

This is the fastest and highest flying air-breathing aircraft ever made (only rockets can go higher or faster).  It has a maximum speed unspecified above Mach 3.5 (3.5 times the speed of sound) and a maximum altitude also unspecified but in excess of 85,000 feet.  At Mach 3.5 you’re covering 1km per second and the engines are sucking in 3 million litres of air every second – an average human breaths in that much air in a year.

The construction of the plane is pretty special too, with 90% of it being made from titanium.  At Mach 3+ the surface of the plane heats up to 500+ degrees.  The wet patches you can see on the wings and central spine in this photograph are caused by the fuel leaking out of the expansion joint ‘gills’ in the plane.  Until about Mach 2.5 when the plane heats up and expands, the SR-71 leaks fuel constantly.

While the Concord can do the transatlantic London to New York flight in about three and half hours, the SR-71 is the way to go if you’re in a hurry.  It holds the record at just 1 hour 54 min.

My favourite SR-71 story comes from a pilot in the book Sled Driver: “One day, high above Arizona , we were monitoring the radio traffic of all the mortal airplanes below us. First, a Cessna pilot asked the air traffic controllers to check his ground speed. ‘Ninety knots,’ ATC replied. A twin Bonanza soon made the same request. ‘One-twenty on the ground,’ was the reply. To our surprise, a navy F-18 came over the radio with a ground speed check. I knew exactly what he was doing. Of course, he had a ground speed indicator in his cockpit, but he wanted to let all the bug-smashers in the valley know what real speed was ‘Dusty 52, we show you at 620 on the ground,’ ATC responded. The situation was too ripe. I heard the click of Walter’s mike button in the rear seat. In his most innocent voice, Walter startled the controller by asking for a ground speed check from 81,000 feet, clearly above controlled airspace. In a cool, professional voice, the controller replied, ‘ Aspen 20, I show you at 1,982 knots on the ground.’ We did not hear another transmission on that frequency all the way to the coast.”

This article from Gizmodo about flying the SR-71 is required reading.

In a world of throw-away appliances and software it’s a salient reminder that great work, great engineering lasts a long time.  The Skunkworks team was isolated and protected from the rest of the organisation; this one team designed over 30 planes including the U2, A-12, SR-71, F-117, F-22 – just to name a few iconic aircraft.

Luna Quote – John F. Kennedy

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“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” – John F. Kennedy

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