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From a challenge to a tested prototype in a week – Case Kalmar

The Design Sprint method addresses a selected challenge for one week and tests the developed solution in a quick schedule. Three Kalmar employees gathered to a meeting room with Insta’s facilitation team for a week to remove themselves from their normal routine just before the coronavirus hit.

Software development

In this article, Risto Lintinen and Aleksi Lehtonen recall what happened during that week and what the results were.

Kalmar is a pioneer in the automation of container terminals and in eco-efficient cargo handling. As part of product development, the company uses modern innovation methods, such as the design sprint described here. Design methods help focus on the problem at hand and eliminate distractions. This design sprint:

  • Resulted in solutions and a prototype for a problem that had been causing trouble for Kalmar for many years, and the prototype was submitted for user testing

  • Gave users a prototype that surprised them positively

  • Surprised the participants with the effectiveness of the method

The initial situation was very complex and complicated before the week’s hard efforts: a solution had to be found to make a process faster and easier. Attempts had been made for years to solve this problem through meetings and discussions. However, a solution could not be found because of the conflicting needs of the various stakeholders and users. On the other hand, the constantly changing situation posed problems – the time never seemed right to make decisions and solve the problem.

Kalmar factory

One week, one challenge

“All participants had dozens of other things on their plate at the time, so the best thing about the method seemed to be its ability to achieve a lot in a short time by concentrating properly on one thing only, so the process would not drag on for weeks,” says Aleksi when explaining the selection of the method.

A design sprint begins with exploring the problem and defining key issues, followed by prototyping and user testing. At the end of the crunch, a written final report will be completed for follow-up.

“Ideas in product development are usually processed a little slower and it often takes a lot of time,” explains Risto. “We expected the design sprint to give a rough idea of what we are dealing with very quickly and hopefully to steer our decision making in the right direction.

The week did not require any special preparation from the Kalmar employees who participated. All it took was selecting the right people and booking a week in their calendars. One member of the three-person team was appointed as business owner and the other two as domain experts. In addition, interviewees were found for user research. All that was left to do was to get through five intense days of the design sprint with the Insta experts.

Relaxed but effective

“It didn’t feel like a lot of pressure, even though we did a lot in only a few days,” says Aleksi. “There was a lot to do and the process was strict. It takes a good facilitator like Sami Surakka from Insta. Although certain things had to happen in a short time, the situation seemed relaxed and we were able to have good conversations,” he continues.

“The coronavirus pandemic was just beginning and there were signs in the air that soon it would no longer be possible to work face to face,” continues Aleksi.

Risto warmly remembers the same: “This was one of the last periods of face-to-face work before the coronavirus and lockdown, and I remember it fondly. The facilities were good and the environment calm. We were able to isolate ourselves well, which was quite luxurious in comparison to the normal hustle and bustle of working life where interruptions are constant.

Results in practice

“We achieved the objectives that were set before the process. It was definitely an almost complete success. We had preconceived ideas about what the result would be, and they turned out to be correct,” says Aleksi when talking about the results of the design sprint. “I have referred to the final report several times because of its clear structure.

To support my own thinking, I have to check the conclusions we drew then. The most important thing during the design sprint was defining our objective, i.e., identifying the main issues and problems. We also found people to test the prototype to see if that way of defining the objective and the problems associated with it was any good. The prototype revealed that our solution was a step in the right direction.

“I’m very satisfied with the concept,” says Risto. “The greatest outcomes were user research and the user interface concepts – as well as valuable user feedback from testing. All the results were really valuable and the essence of the solution became clear.

“As for the technical solution, I would have expected a more detailed roadmap. Maybe I had slightly unrealistic ideas about what could be achieved in a week. A concrete technical architecture would have required more extensive prior knowledge and pre-made technology choices, or perhaps another similar week’s crunch. However, the user interface concept was a clear, awesome achievement that was worth focusing on,” continues Risto.

“The design sprint describes the current situation and its challenges in writing. It’s valuable just to express this succinctly. In addition, one possible solution to the situation was proposed and the idea of a roadmap was presented. The final report does not answer just one question. Reading it also doesn’t require much prior knowledge of the operating environment, and the report’s significance is clear without explanations in internal discussions,” says Aleksi when talking about the significance of the final report.

“The final report enables continuous experimentations and prototyping because the wholeprocess and the current state is documented.,” says Lauri Kutinlahti from Insta.

The process runs like clockwork

A design sprint is carefully scheduled and focused, which may take some getting used to.

“I was sceptical about the design sprint in the sense that I doubted whether anything could be accomplished by always jumping to the next task before coming to any conclusions about the previous one. But after three days I noticed that if we had stuck with the first thing until it was resolved, we would never have moved on. I was positively surprised about how we were forced to push on,” notes Risto.

Risto also identifies the challenges associated with the design sprint: “Tolerating uncertainty and incompleteness is part of the method. In a design sprint, you choose a goal and work towards it, ignoring everything else. While this keeps everyone focused on the solution, it also means any issues that are excluded from the process will not be solved at the same time.”

“I was surprised about how well everything went. We were able to complete the process, stayed on schedule, got the right people to attend, and got a structured report in the end. I would have assumed that at some points there would have been some obscure areas that could not be discussed in enough detail. However, discussions were so well focused that this did not happen. The key question was narrowed down with such precision that even the more sprawling discussions found their way back to the topic,” says Aleksi.

“The process goes like clockwork and also forces the participants to find a common ground, even if they disagree. The business owner has the voice and decision-making power of the chairman, and the role facilitates progress,” explains Lauri from Insta.

Method in a toolkit

“I was left with a positive feeling about having such a method in the toolkit. If and when we have a similar need, we’ll know we can use this. Perhaps the design sprint mindset can also provide guidance and focus to create something new: it’s worth focusing on one thing at a time, solving what’s solvable, and leaving uncertainties to be solved later,” analyzes Risto.

”I would use the same method again and, when faced with some challenges later, I have thought that it might be suitable for them,” says Aleksi. “Next, we should think about the process for identifying the things it can be used for.I strongly believe that this will work for producing or validating a concept. The method is not a silver bullet to all the challenges of software production, but it has its place,” Risto sums up.

Remote design sprint?

Design sprint removes the participants from their normal routine and immerses them in intense work amidst thought processes written down on post-it notes, in their own bubble where they go every morning for a week. Is there any way it could be done at this time of remote working? Would it be possible to get in the same mood? How would the conversation be structured and what would it take to work? Insta's facilitator Sami Surakka answers.

“We just got really positive feedback on a remote sprint we just carried out, and the customer would recommend sprints to others as well. The keys to success included:

  • participants’ enthusiasm, commitment, and confidence in facilitation

  • the right number of the right people and clear responsibilities

  • management of expectations for the sprint, supplemented at clarification meetings held before the sprint

  • adequate breaks, which are particularly important in intensive remote working

  • working tools that were introduced in advance with a pre-assignment of a few minutes

The problem to be solved was also of a suitable magnitude for the method. While advance preparation is not a requirement for design sprinting, our light preparatory work helped to define the problem.
The challenges of a remote sprint are similar to the method in general. It’s also possible to get in the mood remotely: one of our customers commented in their feedback that sometimes it felt like we were really in the same room!”

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