Over the last 11 months, RHEA’s system engineering team has been sharing insights into how you can ensure concurrent design sessions are rigorous and the outcomes are high quality. These insights are based on nearly two decades of applying collaborative engineering design for projects as varied as space programmes, defence systems, factory design and luxury yachts.

Here we offer an overview of their advice and tips, with links to the individual blog posts for more detailed guidance.

By Gwendolyn Kolfschoten, Concurrent Design Expert, RHEA

Concurrent design sessions bring together the client, experts from various domains and system engineers to develop an integral, consistent design based on shared understanding and rigorous design decisions. The method is usually applied in the early phases of design and aims to identify key trade-offs and challenges by applying a quantitative, fact-based approach, despite the uncertainties and interdependencies that are typical at this stage.

Making this work efficiently and effectively requires specific insight and skills on the part of the facilitator (team leader) and their supporting team members.

1. The role of the facilitator

In concurrent design sessions, the facilitator should remain impartial, neutral and objective, but at the same time they need to ensure the group’s work is based on facts and is driven by data. They also need to ensure the team’s work is rigorous. Together, this means constantly challenging the accuracy of the results that have been presented.

2. Use 60 eyes to check and double chck

team of men and women looking down at information on a tablePeer reviewing is one of the most effective ways to validate the quality and rigour of results. However, using the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is not as straightforward as it sounds. Sometimes not everyone listens closely; sometimes other experts do not ask questions or challenge results, perhaps because they do not fully understand them. It is important to address both issues to ensure the final solution does not present any problems, so in this post we explain a number of ways to achieve this.

3. Validation and doing the maths

Validation is a standard practice in system engineering, but it is still mostly a planned and separate activity at the end of a task when something is finished. For concurrent design, we need a more continuous and iterative means of validation, and preferably one that is quantitative and driven by data. However, at this stage of design, we typically have to use estimates.

Engineers are used to calculating the properties of a system, but coming up with an early estimate is more difficult and can make them feel uncomfortable, as it is their job to make sure calculations are correct.

4. Quality in is quality out

When stakeholders present information in a structured and complete manner, it is far more likely that issues and challenges will be identified than when information is presented in a vague and unstructured manner. Our mantra therefore is ‘Quality in is quality out’ – effectively the opposite to what we have all encountered at some point, which is ‘Garbage in is garbage out’.

But how can we enhance quality and rigour before the information is presented?

5. Focus without losing a holistic view

hand holding camera lensQuality is created by focus; the more we zoom in, the more issues we find and can resolve. However, zooming in too quickly means losing sight of alternatives. It also limits the holistic perspective which is how we find any issues in interfaces and connections that are often critical in complex systems.

We need to do the same when introducing a new subsystem and zooming in on its challenges. First show the team where in the overall system it is located and how it is connected, and then explain the challenges and how they relate to other subsystems.

6. Challenging the experts

When you are the facilitator in a concurrent design session you may know a lot less about the topic than the participants, and yet you have the task of challenging experts and potentially calling out flaws. How can you do that without bruising their egos? How can you send them away with homework to improve the rigour of their results without making them feel they did a bad job?

7. How to deal with blaming and shaming

When issues are revealed in concurrent design sessions, it is inevitable that some blaming and shaming will take place – or at least that one or more team members will perceive feedback that way. This tends to happen despite any preventive measures taken by team leads.

Negativity is not good for the overall atmosphere during a project and can cause participants to be shy and less forthcoming about any future problems they identify. Team leads therefore need to keep a balance and separate problems from people.

8. Create shared understanding without looking stupid

Back view of woman standing at table leading a team meetingWhen talking about complex systems in concurrent design sessions, people will inevitably present things that others do not understand. Part of the role of the team lead is to ask the ‘dumb’ questions – that is, to ask things that others dare not ask because they feel they should already understand. However, the challenge is that asking too many questions will slow the process down. As a team lead, it may also impair your own credibility if most people in the group do know the answers.

Knowing when to ask questions and finding a suitable question style are both important.

9. How to manage the interfaces between subsystems

When designing complex systems, one area that is good to explore as early as possible is the interfaces between subsystems – how each one works or fits in with others. Identifying the conditions for these to work and implementing a way to keep track of each one during development is a significant task. It is also a key task, because even when an interface has been discovered and classified as challenging, this does not mean it is fixed.

10. How to manage trade-offs and infeasible aspects

Graphical image of set of balance scales in blue concentric circlesIn the early design phase of a complex project, many details are still undecided and open. However, in order to validate high-level requirements, we need to get a first impression of both critical performance metrics and key constraints.

Identifying anything that is potentially not feasible, and classifying the risk and uncertainty associated with each one, is an important issue in quality assurance. The earlier we identify these issues, the more time there is to solve them. Conversely, finding the trade-offs also means uncovering areas where the engineers may have to convince the client or user that what they want may not be possible.

11. Avoiding bias in decision-making

A difficult challenge that team leaders face when ensuring rigour and quality in concurrent design is how to maximize the quality of any decisions when uncertainty is high. In such instances, it is important to guard against different sources of bias while trying to focus on fact-based decisions.

This final post in our collaborative engineering blog post series outlines why bias happens and how to avoid it. It also provides explanations of several types of bias that facilitators need to be aware of and how to get round them – something that could be useful to anyone running meetings where decisions are being made, not just concurrent design sessions!

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