Don’t reinvent the wheel, refine the heck out of it
I love being presented with a design challenge, but arriving at the final answer can be arduous and time consuming without a path to follow. In the process of taking the steps to the solution, the strategy becomes less daunting, and the method becomes more comfortable.
After having finished the design, I know the same steps may be repeated to solve a similar problem, or a portion of the solution may be used as a jumping-off point for a different yet related problem.
Humanity has repeated this process countless times. Each time we solve a problem using a well-established, proven solution, we hone an approach, save time and conserve resources. Conventional wisdom reminds us to not reinvent the wheel. As I see it, the wheel is constantly reinvented through refinement. In fact, the more adaptable and available a solution is for refinement, the more rapid, more accurate and less costly revisions will be.
There are some real-world examples of how fixed, inflexible solutions often stifle creativity and require the devotion of more resources to implement change compared to modular solutions. Modular approaches are prevailing in many business sectors by providing more compliant, flexible and cost-effective approaches. In biopharmaceutical production, a modular design that adapts flexibly to changes in the process flow is less costly, more productive and more compliant compared to fixed designs that only operate based on the initial design. Similarly, in laboratory design, modular casework and lab furniture provide a platform that can be deployed with lower installation costs, move to complement process or real-estate changes and adapt to specific requirements more quickly and less costly than fixed designs.
Modularity allows for rapid customization of design tools and deliverables. Modular calculations, standard procedures and template documents allow for consistent, cost-effective and repeatable performance. Modular calculations and standard procedures are recorded in libraries that include examples of the required input and explanations of other needed information. Template documents, such as specifications and narratives, represent typical deliverables. These, along with some instruction, can be customized to meet the specific needs of a similar project.
These modular calculations, standard procedures and template documents are products of a typical design project, scrubbed for custom requirements and brand content, enriched with alternate approaches and annotated with instructions for the next user. This is an important but difficult task. These documents can have a significant cost-reducing effect on a project’s bottom line when they are effectively used.
Our organizations spend operating budgets on reducing client costs. Why? To make the more repeatable tasks more efficient so that someone like me can spend time doing what I love: providing solutions to novel problems. As an engineer in a life-science engineering and construction firm, I’m often tasked with designing unique solutions to custom processes. My work often involves the design process of investigating project requirements, creatively exploring design alternatives and solving problems for which an existing solution doesn’t exist or isn’t adequate. Libraries of modular calculations, standard procedures and template documents help me spend more time solving problems that directly impact our clients and less time working on content that has already been created. Having a purpose-built template ensures that I’m providing my clients with the best possible solution for their needs, not just a rehash of what I did on the last project.
Once modular calculations, standard procedures and template documents are created, refined and applied, there are still benefits to further periodic refinement. Technology changes fast, so modules must be “evergreen.” Some changes require a major revision, and others only need to be a minor tweak. Changing the approach or methodology of a calculation or procedure may not be achievable without a major rewrite. Rewriting a calculation, procedure or document is a great way to teach or learn something new. Oftentimes, the process of a rewrite provides teaching opportunities that may be more beneficial than the act of the change itself. Creating a new tool using a preexisting example can safeguard the continuity of the inputs, outputs and format of the calculations, procedures and documents in the library. Harmonizing the approach and methods of all tools in a library provides consistency to those reviewing and using the tools.
Take heed, and “don’t reinvent the wheel.” Make sure that you have thoroughly investigated existing solutions. When you do find a model that you can improve, feel obligated to build something better or improve upon what is already out there. If you don’t find an example to build upon, then build something great, and make it available for someone else to improve in the future.