How to Speed Up Engineering Design Cycles with Efficient Peer Review
November 12, 2021
Going from initial brainstorms to finished design isn’t a straight line for engineering projects. The design cycle is inherently iterative, and more complexity in the design only leads to more complexity in the process. The more complex the design process, the more chances there are for the project timeline to get longer and longer. So when you’re responsible for hitting the mark on deadlines, schedules, and budgets—you want to take advantage of every single efficiency that will keep your design cycles moving along as fast as possible.
When it comes to design cycle length, peer review is an important lever at your disposal. Exactly what constitutes a peer review—and what it’s called—varies between different organizations, teams, and purposes. In a report about peer review lessons from NASA, originally presented at ASME Design Engineering Technical Conference, researchers defined peer reviews as “informal, in-depth technical reviews, usually held before major reviews.”
Ultimately, the key here is that well-executed peer reviews prevent formal design reviews from becoming big, clunky, time-consuming events that slow a project down. Catching concerns or mistakes before the point of major reviews has a significant ripple effect on the overall trajectory of a project. This article highlights three key strategies to speed up your engineering design cycles with efficient peer review.
1. Make Peer Review Easier
The path of least resistance is a powerful concept. Think about your own team: how much friction is involved to initiate and/or complete a peer review? When peer reviews are quick and easy, they can deliver a ton of value by saving time and money. But when a simple peer check is more cumbersome than it’s worth, it gets difficult to justify going through that process. The value it provides takes a big hit.
So how do you evaluate your peer review process to know if it’s “quick and easy” enough? While there’s no single standard that will apply to every team and situation out there, here are some useful questions to ask yourself when trying to determine how efficient your peer reviews are:
- What type, or types, of “peer review” does our team use? What type(s) should we use?
- How do peer reviews currently happen? Is there a standardized, repeatable process?
- When, and how often, should a design undergo peer review? Who should be involved?
Peer reviews are a crucial way to foster collaboration among the people within your immediate team. Although they’re often informal, it’s still well worth it to take a close look at the processes and tools your team has available to conduct them. After all: when your peer reviews are easier, your major, formal design reviews will be, too.
2. Do it Earlier and More Often
Once you’re confident your peer reviews aren’t costing more time and effort than they’re worth, then you can look at using them earlier and more often where it makes sense. This will depend on the size and scope of your project and your team. But when peer reviews are quick and easy, they’re not so much a “process” as simply collaboration.
Peer review that happens earlier and more often lets your team naturally work in a way that’s more aligned with iterative design and development. As Kate Eby writes in this article, “The goal of iteration is to get closer to the answer, solution, or discovery with each repetition. The concept and the solution eventually converge, such as in a math function or a scientific discovery, because you progress toward your desired result each time you iterate or tweak the product.”
The point of peer review is not to have teammates police each other’s work. Efficient peer review is about maximizing the collective power of your team. It’s about creating more opportunities for team members to leverage each other’s strengths and viewpoints, bounce ideas off each other, and get into that ideal creative flow. It’s basically about manifesting the old adage that “two heads are better than one.” And when it happens earlier and more often, you get to a better result—and you get there faster.
3. De-silo the Process
To make the most out of your peer reviews, it’s important they aren’t happening in silos. When two engineers or designers or other team members have a productive conversation in a one-on-one email thread or Teams message, valuable information gets trapped in a silo—instead of being accessible to others who could learn from the discussion and apply it to their own work on the same project (or future projects). This makes your team vulnerable to the risk of duplicated efforts, repeated mistakes, and a general lack of alignment.
However, when your team’s peer reviews happen in a centrally-accessible space, it creates the opportunity for collaboration to snowball. Getting the conversations out of silos allows other team members to chime in when they have value to offer. It improves transparency, which in turn improves the general working culture of the team.
Without needing to involve every single person in every single discussion, it builds an environment where everyone is more aware of what’s happening across the team and project. Although it’s hard (likely even impossible) to quantify, bringing peer reviews into a more shared and open space leads to a more efficient design process overall. Instead of feeling fragmented, your team can continue to work independently—but can benefit from the collaborative “hive mind” of everyone’s combined expertise.