Using Superhero (& Villain) Gadgets To Teach The Process Of Design & Quality
Originally Published in the Summer 2020 Quality Management Forum
Imagine you are in a product design meeting and the conversation is going something like the following. The product user wants an airplane designed, and she requires that it must be able to:
- Hold four passengers
- Carry and deploy heat-seeking missiles
- Achieve supersonic speeds yet remain silent
- Go undetected by radar
- Enter and fly in outer space, and while there be able to process the passenger’s own exhaled oxygen to allow breathing
- Regenerate and repair itself
- Be controlled by telepathy, and (if that is not enough),
- Become invisible!
Now, imagine you are part of the design and quality team that is charged with the development, testing, delivery, and service of Wonder Woman’s airplane. This is the challenge I have often given to my students in classes I teach on design and quality.
I have found that using superhero gadgets to help students learn and apply design and quality principles is a good way to create a group exercise that is fun and motivating while also allowing each element of a design and quality process to be utilized by the students. There are so many areas that student teams may focus on: e.g. the Penguin’s umbrella, Iron Man’s exosuit, Thor’s hammer, the Batmobile, the Batcave, Underdog’s telephone booth (necessary for Shoe Shine Boy to make his transformation into Underdog), almost any Star Trek gadget (I am fairly flexible on how we define term “superhero”), or any gadget that Inspector Gadget uses. All that being said, most student groups focus on Batman and Iron Man gadgets, but that does not keep me from utilizing other superheroes as examples as I teach the concepts of design and quality (after all it is “up, up, and away – Underdog saves the day!”). Remember my statement about copyright laws—so, I have provided a photo of the family dog, Crichton, instead of Underdog. Family fact—we actually met Michael Crichton and gave him a photo of our dog, and he told us this was the first time a dog was named after him.
Before we can start the superhero gadget design project, we have to “get our heads around” a few facts, which are:
- Superhero input and review will be minimal, as they spend most of their time saving the world and have little, if any, time for design reviews.
- Superhero gadgets must react in real time to an incoming set data and adjust accordingly.
- Superhero gadgets will always be used in a worst case condition (and often worse-than-worst case conditions), and
- Superhero gadgets must be aesthetically pleasing and compliment the attire of the superhero.
This includes an intended-use statement, developing performance characteristics, developing a preliminary risk profile, and cost constraints. This can be daunting for students because they can get overwhelmed by the totality of superhero needs. So, I suggest they focus on just four to five of the gadget requirements.
A visual really helps here, but the key is that the specifications and acceptance criteria are linked directly to the requirements. Forcing students to draw out their superhero gadget helps them develop the set of acceptance criteria and also helps them realize that design and quality are both right- and left-brain processes.
This is where we test against the specifications in a controlled environment with a focus on testing to failure. It is an area where some of those assumptions I mentioned earlier are made—e.g. to test Mach 2 superhero speeds, we need a Mach 2 test chamber—and, in this process, we just snap our fingers and a Mach 2 test chamber appears! From there, however, students need to develop a test plan with appropriate measures, which include a discussion of accuracy, precision, and measurement error.
This is where we test in the use environment, which includes worst case and worst-than-worst case conditions (since this is the condition wherein superhero gadgets are most often used). How do we test a superhero gadget in real world conditions? Well, we give it to our superhero sidekick (e.g. Robin) and have them try to break the gadget. More than likely, your superhero will not be available (just like customers are not available sometimes), so we have to work with whatever customer environments we have.
Somebody has to make all those superhero gadgets, so there needs to be a transfer plan. This step includes not only the technical side of the transfer, but how we will train those who build, manufacture, and distribute the superhero gadget. And I make it a point to say we can’t use Amazon, FedEx, UPS, or the Postal Service!
If anything is certain in the superhero gadget ecosystem, it is that superhero gadgets are forever changing. So, we need a holistic and effective design and quality change management process. This gets right back to the requirements—such as, have we designed a superhero gadget that is relatively easy to fix (say, with interchangeable parts)?
Maintenance and Service
Utilizing multiple sources of information, there must be a way to keep the superhero gadgets useful, which means an effective routine maintenance process. Superheroes cannot be without their gadgets for any extended period of time; so when service is needed, the gadget needs to be capable of being serviced quickly (and most likely in the field).
There are, of course, design reviews at strategic points in a design and quality process, but for this student assignment I require only a final design review. It is common in industry for executive time to be limited (just as superhero time is limited), so this is an opportunity to help students understand that even the best designs fail if the communication processes are poor.
I may have oversimplified the design and quality process a bit, but the key is for students to progress through a holistic design and quality process for whatever superhero gadget their team selects. This requires making some assumptions, as I stated earlier. You might be surprised by the information you can find out, however, about superhero gadgets that is quite useful with a minimal amount of research. For example, the Batcave:
- Has four secret entrances, only one of which is a natural cave opening
- Has four levels, which encompass over 50,000 square feet of space
- Is located under Wayne manor (who doesn’t know that?) and is actually a cave
- Has an active nuclear reactor
- Has a global crime detection system
- Has a forensics laboratory
- Has a medical facility
- Has a fully functional maintenance area to maintain the Batmobile, the Bat-boat, the Bat-copter, and a lot of other Bat-stuff
- Experiences all four weather seasons (so we experience hot, cold, humidity, and natural disasters around and in the Batcave)
What starts as a “lark” (imagine the fun listing the requirements for Thor’s hammer) becomes serious real fast when students dive deep into the design and quality processes. For example, development of an intended use statement requires students to understand how the superhero gadget will be used, and the development of a preliminary risk profile requires students to understand just what can go wrong (well, really, what can go horribly wrong because things often do go horribly wrong in the superhero ecosystem) as superheroes use their gadgets in ways that go past the intended use statements the students spend hours developing. (Welcome to the world of “the customer couldn’t care less what the product is intended to do.” What they care about is “what they intend for the product to do”). It only gets worse from here because developing specifications that can actually be tested is not an easy task. Now, I do allow some level of innovation. For example, students will often invent a device to test the superhero gadgets (e.g. relative to Iron Man’s exosuit, it is really impossible to test the exosuit at Mach 2, so I allow the invention of a measurement system that can do just that— remember we already invented a Mach 2 test chamber in this very article). The same holds true for transfer since not everyone has access to Dwarven blacksmiths (who, as Thor fans know, are the only people that can forge Thor’s hammer) or the Asgardian metal uru (which is the material Thor’s hammer is made of, and which, by the way, is totally nonexistent). So, I cannot show you a photo of Thor’s Hammer, but I can show you a photo from Bryce National Park of “Thor’s Hammer.” This will have to suffice until copyright laws change.
I find that the lesson most students take from this exercise is to spend more time in the requirements stage understanding and defining what the superhero gadget will and will not do. This is the place in the process where students most often return to make adjustments as they seek to add detail and depth to what they may have overlooked earlier. For example, to test a superhero device, we really need to have a very clear and detailed intended use statement and preliminary risk profiles. All that being said, however, as students work through each stage of the design and quality processes, they are actively learning the concepts of design and quality, complete with the uncertainties and challenges of working in an actual design and quality process.
I also ask students to prepare, as part of their work, a final design review package as they would present it to the superhero (or villain) who will use the gadget the group developed. As part of this design review, I require students to develop (and answer) ten possible questions they may be asked during the final design review by the superhero (who has taken time off from saving the world to attend a design review). The development of a Q&A set proves helpful to students and, most of the time, pushes them to go back and reevaluate the work they plan to submit at the project’s end point. This part of the assignment also forces students to find ways to effectively communicate their design and quality methodology, seeking agreement at the end of the final design review that the superhero gadget is ready for use. As part of the evaluation, I place myself in the superhero role and, after reading the Q&A, I try to come up with some insightful follow-up questions that will challenge the students. This review of the student work is not really difficult to accomplish, mainly because I find the work of the teams interesting to grade. In addition, students enjoy working on this assignment, which not only results in well-designed superhero gadgets but also in students who leave the class with a positive impression and a deep understanding of design and quality processes. What we have here is a win-win for both the instructor and the students.
Now, I have also tried this same approach in my work teams, to a lesser degree of success. But, when this process has worked with work teams, it really works! I have asked work teams to take a day off and, as did the student groups, design a superhero gadget (but they get only one day to complete the task). What I found this process will do, when taken seriously, is reinvigorate a product design and quality team and—in the process—free them up to think differently and more creatively. This exercise often translates into a more cohesive product design and quality team and opens the team to being more innovative and creative about the products they are working on. My tagline for this endeavor has always been (I’m proud of this little ditty) in both the classroom and at work that “impossible problems looked impossible just before the impossible was made possible.” And I firmly believe this one-day event has had significant impact on product features, user interfaces, employee satisfaction, and employee retention. That being said, this is one (mortal) man’s opinion, and I can’t point to any data to support this view. Here is a photo of me standing atop Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park—where I used my mortal skills to climb up a very steep grade (look it up).
If you have the time, I recommend that you sit down with your design and quality teams and have them design out a superhero gadget—perhaps Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. You just might find the process educational (reinforcing the concepts of design and quality), rewarding (and fun), and beneficial (as design and quality teams develop the skill set to look at difficult problems as solvable problems). As for you, the reader, on the way home from work, do me a favor: stop at the local store and buy a superhero comic book. You will be glad you did!