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Running effective engineering design reviews

July 09, 2019

The term design review can have a lot of different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.

A design review can be as simple as a non-structured peer review of a prototype as it comes to life in the prototype development lab. In heavily regulated industries (automotive, military, aerospace, and medical device) the term design review has a fairly specific definition in that there are established requirements for a milestone review to be considered a formal design review.

A common approach for a formal design review is that a multidisciplinary team, including domain experts not actively involved on the project, are brought together to critique a design. The objective is to compare the current state of the design to a set of requirements, utilizing the collective wisdom of the team to digest the information and provide feedback on the emerging design solution. Ultimately, the team either approves the design state or creates a prioritized list of issues that should be mitigated prior to progressing to the next phase of development.

These formal milestones are almost without exception on the critical path, often gating the release of prototyping builds, funding cycles, and eventually tooling and commercial release. When not orchestrated well, a design review can very quickly turn into an unproductive meeting in which the value-add of the exercise is limited. Worse yet, a poorly executed design review can send a team spinning with an action item list that is poorly conceived based on the simple yet well-understood rule of garbage in equals garbage out.

So, what does it take to do it right? Here are some things we consider best practices for facilitating engineering design reviews:

1. Assign a facilitator. That person doesn’t necessarily need to be the technical lead on the project. In fact, many times it may be better if they are not. The facilitator needs to plan the review, decide who needs to participate, determine if the review will be complex enough that information needs to be provided ahead of time, etc. Make sure to assign a note taker.

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    The purpose of the review is to uncover concerns to help make your product better.

    2. Clarify the goals for the review. Start with a level-setting exercise to ensure that participants understand where the project is in the development process and the purpose of the review (release for rapid prototyping, release for tooling, transfer to manufacturing, etc.)

    3. Provide context to the team. What requirements and constraints exist? What are the key factors for success? Take some extra time to anticipate areas of potential concern and address those head on, so the team spends less time on the low-hanging fruit and more time peeling back the layers of the onion.

    4. Present the design. This can take many forms; maybe CAD models and screen shots, functional prototypes, or schematics and theory of operation documents, etc.

    5. Keep the discussion productive and focused. If you are the technical lead, don’t be defensive. The purpose of the review is to uncover concerns to help make it better. Some feedback will undoubtedly be subjective, i.e., “that’s not how I would do it…” Dig deeper to understand the concern with the current design state. Resist turning the design review into a brainstorming improvement session. First, find all of the concerns. Brainstorming solutions can be a follow-up activity.

    6. Create and prioritize the issues list. This is why it really helps to have someone assigned as note taker. This can be the hardest part of the meeting as folks get fatigued and time runs short. Use prompts like: “If you could only address one thing, what would it be?” If you're working in one of those highly regulated markets like medical device, make sure you are following your Design Review procedures and categorizing issues and creating follow-up tasks and sign offs as appropriate

    7. Document, follow up, and close out. Send out meeting notes, Dot the I, cross the T, and ensure action item lists are closed out and signed off.

      I can’t help but acknowledge that this list clearly parallels what it takes to run effective meetings in general, not just design reviews. I guess that is the point – a design review can be a really high-stakes meeting, so treat it like one.

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