“I can tell whether a design engineer is good for our culture or not by seeing if he is there at the first shot.”
Our client is a designer and manufacturer of components and systems for the interiors of automobiles. Their product is increasingly important as a differentiator for its customers’ vehicles in a crowded marketplace. The interior components of vehicles carry the traditional impressions of style, of comfort, and of luxury. The technology embedded in them extends these impressions and adds safety, security, entertainment, and connectedness. And, as the idea of the driverless vehicle moves forward, these components will need to satisfy a whole new set of demands and expectations as a passenger’s eye moves from the road to the interior of the vehicle, and as attention is liberated from the critical to the desirable.
We are designing a new North American headquarters and customer center for them, and the company’s project leader made the observation that I quoted above. Earlier, as we toured one of his facilities, he had made a comment about what to some might appear to be unbounded clutter. In some areas, product samples were piled on tables or overflowed into adjacent workstations.
As I looked on this scene, I silently recalled the power of the product in some of the other companies we’ve worked with. In those companies, the presence of the product in the workplace meant a fast path to competitive leadership. The direct connection of people to product powered a rapid transfer of information – specific data about a project, tacit information about how technical things are done around here, and casual yet productive social exchanges that built team cohesion. The presence of the product also activated closer engagement with their customers and generated a higher level of satisfaction with their programs.
So, I entered that conversation about clutter with a bit of concern. Would our client direct us toward a more typical corporate workplace where the interaction with the product is more formal and where work in progress was out of sight? Or was our client beginning to cue up a more nuanced interest in how the product was used in the flow of design and engineering work?
But when he made the comment I quoted above, I relaxed and realized we were on our way to designing a new kind of workplace.
You see, this company’s products are components made from molded thermoplastics. The product idea starts in virtual space, in the computer where design engineers may spend the first weeks of a project developing and coordinating designs on the desktop. Eventually, the product idea moves to the making of the mold and the product shaped by it. The “first shot” is the physical result of the first injection of thermoplastics into the mold, the first time the digital idea becomes a physical product.
So that observation, that the culture of the company is reflected in people who wanted to be present at the “first shot” was confirmation for me that we were on the right path. We were designing a new kind of workplace for people who cared deeply about the physicality of the product and about its role in the design and engineering process that made the company a global leader. We would design a place where the appropriate celebration and accommodation of the physical products of work would have a place.
We were designing a “New Technical Workplace” where the product in every stage of its development was present in the workspace.