Designing Innovation

To lead you must be in the forefront, not moving along with everyone else.

At a press/analyst meeting hosted by Unigraphics Solutions this past July, there were, as might be expected, a series of PowerPoint presentations regarding developments the CAD/CAM/CAE/PDM software provider is rolling out (e.g., Unigraphics v. 16; Solid Edge v. 7). And there were a number of user talks, such as one by Dale Evans, staff development engineer at General Motors (Unigraphics' biggest customer), who was both frank and funny as he described software implementation at the automaker (from resistance to reluctance to realization of benefits).

And then Young Kim, president and CEO of Innodesign (Palo Alto, CA) took the stage. He began to talk about his vocation, avocation...and passion: design. Afterwards, I spent an hour talking with him about achieving something beyond the status quo.

Provocative ideas tend to be simple. As Young Kim's is: Design can provide competitive advantage. While that might be taken for granted (i.e., the obverse of good design is bad design, and who wants to buy poorly designed products? Answer: Nobody. Who will buy adequately designed products? Almost everybody. Who will buy good design? The people who understand value.), Kim believes that designers' capabilities are woefully under utilized by damn near everyone.

Historically (and up through to right now), designers, by and large, have been reactive, Kim explains. A company does market research, then goes to a design firm to have the specs transformed into a 3D object. Kim thinks that this is too late for the involvement of designers: "Let the designers start first." He maintains that good designers know what the market wants—perhaps even before the market knows that it wants it.

It is worth noting that when Mikano Kitano was heading up Toyota Motor Manufacturing in the U.S., he argued that it was important for assembly line personnel to be more integrally involved in assuring the quality of build. Kitano pointed out that the people building the cars are the same people who shop for cars: They know what quality is.

Similarly, management consultant Tom Peters has pointed out that there is a tendency for managers to underestimate the capabilities of their employees, even though those employees are managing their households and dealing with nontrivial issues like mortgages, children's' education, etc. Entrusting employees with the ability to make discretionary decisions isn't such a big deal when that context is considered.

Kim's approach to doing more than talking about good design is also simple. He employs 30 people in Palo Alto. Most industrial design (I.D.) firms work on client-initiated and sponsored projects. Clients are customers. If there are no customers, no one buying any of the designers' time and talent, then there is no work for the designers. I.D. firms, like businesses ranging from parts suppliers to brokerage houses, typically lay people off when there is no work coming in. But Kim has decided that this approach is, in the long-run, counter productive.

So what he does is keep his designers working—and he is the client. Funding is based on both profits made on previous projects and royalties coming in to Innodesign from some product designs it has developed for clients.

Not only is this beneficial from the standpoint of retaining first-rate staff, but it is also part of Kim's Virtual Product DesignTM (yes: trademarked. Kim understands the value of ideas).

Speaking of product development, Kim says, "You must do it quickly. If you go slowly, you'll never catch up with the market. Traditional design is like watching a movie in slow-motion. Do it quickly. And do it right."

Virtual Product Design is having his designers develop products. Some of these products are Kim's ideas, with him acting as a client. Some of the ideas come from the designers themselves. As the name of this approach implies, the products don't exist in the physical world but in the virtual realm. Kim stresses, however, that the designs are more than stylized surfaces; the designers work out the functionality and the practicality of the products. The designs created are extremely detailed and life-like. As might be expected from Kim's venue, he is a user of Unigraphics software, which he describes as being "a tool."

In his mind, CAD/CAM/CAE facilitates his vision of designer-led product. "In the past, the drawing may have been done on the back of an envelope," Kim says. "Then there were five months of refinements, prototypes, and so on. Now we go from the envelope to Unigraphics." Kim talks about the importance of emotion and passion in great design. The human factor is key; advanced technology is a lever.

One of the more striking aspects of what Young Kim told me relates to all of us, whether we are designers, editors, managers, engineers, or whatever. It's that it is important to be proactive, that we must always be searching for better ways of doing things. Innodesign has an impressive list of clients and has done some outstanding work, presumably enough to keep things going quite well in an ordinary way. But that is insufficient. To lead you must be in the forefront, not moving along with everyone else. Young Kim is clearly a leader.

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