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Why It's Time to Embrace Design Thinking

by Jane Bulnes-Fowles
July 11, 2013

Why It's Time to Embrace Design Thinking

by Jane Bulnes-Fowles
July 11, 2013 | Comments (5)

I met with a friend recently who has moved from LeanCor, a third-party lean logistics supplier, to a new role at a Crush Republic, a design consultancy. She asked whether I thought there was a link between lean and the design-thinking work her new firm was doing of uncovering consumer desires to inform brand strategy and new product offerings. And if I thought there was a link, could I explain it?

Design thinking, as defined by Tim Brown of IDEO, is “a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible.” Brown says design thinking has a human-centered design ethos, one based on a “thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need.” Therefore central to both design thinking and lean thinking is the idea of value.

Lean thinkers place a priority on removing nonvalue-creating steps (waste) from any process. Built into this assumption that removing waste is a good thing is a deeper assumption that we, as producers of products and services, understand value. We know storing a product, moving materials around, or rework of any kind isn’t valued by a customer. But what about the newest options being built into the next generation of a product? Do we know the end customer will value such options? Or that the product being built is the best way to meet the customer’s needs? These are the sorts of questions about value that design thinking tackles.

Jim Morgan, author of The Toyota Product Development System (who worked within product development at Ford as the director of Global Body Exterior and Stamping Business Unit Engineering), says sometimes he thinks lean thinkers talk so much about process that we forget product matters too. Design thinking provides a framework to help us remember the importance of product. 

Lean thinking and design thinking share some core beliefs. Lean practitioners believe that decisions about how to improve a process must be based on facts of how the process works now, not on opinion of how a process should or could work later. Similarly, design thinkers believe that opinions of products—the kind traditionally gathered in focus groups—are not always grounded in facts of how customers actually behave. This shared focus on facts, not opinions, unites both communities.

Lean thinkers know that to gather facts of how a process works you need to go to the gemba, the place where the work is done, where real value is created. For many people, that means a trip to the shopfloor. But if the shopfloor (or call center or hospital lab) is where value is created, value still isn’t actually delivered (realized by an individual, organization, or society) until the product is used by the end customer. So while lean thinkers go to the shopfloor gemba in most cases, design thinkers use tools such as in-home visits, videos, or ethnographic studies to go to a different sort of gemba, the gemba where value is realized by their end customer.

If lean thinking and design thinking share so many core beliefs, shouldn’t design thinking be embraced in all lean enterprises? Jim Morgan once told me the story of a Toyota chief engineer who was in charge of product development for the Toyota Sienna. He spent a year driving around the US in a minivan to better understand the customer experience. Whether that engineer (or Toyota) knew it or not, such a trip must have been filled with all kinds of design thinking. But we don’t hear enough of those stories in the lean community. 

The more the lean community embraces design thinking in its product development processes, the more we can be sure that the value-creating steps we focus on at the gemba actually deliver value to the end customer. Does your organization use design thinking or similar principles to understand your customers’ desires as well as you understand your own gemba and processes?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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5 Comments | Post a Comment
Michael Ballé July 16, 2013
3 People AGREE with this comment

Completely agree with Jim that many of the Lean guys and gals I meet are process obsessed. Here's the thing though - excellent delivery requires a stable, repetitive process - standard in other words - which has the flexibility to still perform in unexpected conditions. It can't be so set that it can't deal with ecological change.

Customer satisfaction, on the other hand, is an experience, and from the customer's experience it is a collaborative experience. A waiter following perfectly every standard can still ruin your restaurant experience by beeing insenstive to your mood or instant special need. 


In both cases, as Jim has told me, we need a mix of fixed (standard) and flexible (open minded), and the balance is very different when you're at the customer front end or in the delivery process. Jane is making a core point for the lean community - we need to move to understand what lean design means in practice, and how to jishuken our understanding of customer satisfaction.

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Torgeir Welo July 17, 2013

Thanks for some interesting refelections on lean vs. design thinking; finally, someone has been brave enough to bring up a topic that many of us have been thinking for a while. At first glance, LPD and Design Thinking (whatever that is...) looks like diametrically opposite strategies; the mature manufacturing industry, doing some product devlopment to fill production lines, vs. Stanford, Silicon Valley and some crazy innovators doing radical stuff. However, overcoming totally different ´languages´--Stanford guys don´t say lean and car guys (from Detroit...at least) don´t say Design Thinking---and continuing to dig beneath the surface, it looks like many of the components (to avoid the term ´principle´) are the same: human centered, value focus (LPD, too), front-loading, test-then-design, early rough prototypes, do it visual, learning (by doing), knowledge, communication, etc. If an IDEO guy had been doing the research required to write the book on TPDS instead of Morgan & Liker, I predict that the (sub)title would have included the term Design Thinking. Finally, to explore this topic further, look to Steelcase in Grand Rapids, MI; they have seen this for a while and have nicely merged the two NPD strageies together.

Torgeir Welo (Norway) 

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Michael Duys July 18, 2013
I recently attended seminar on product development / innovation delivered by a really impressive engineer from Germany who has worked with a number of companies including Apple, BMW etc on their product development processes, and what struck me the most was the level of overlap and commonality with the principles of the lean movement.
 People centred approach, all value is delivered through people so you have to take people along with you (Visual systems, A3, value stream mapping etc), the application of the scientific principles of hypothesis and then testing and then implementation. the idea of teasing out small incremental improvements testing them and then implementing them. All these seem common to both. It sounds like both methodologies have arrived at very similar places although maybe they started at opposite ends of the business ecosystem. By looking beyond the jargon I am sure both could learn an enormous amount from one another. 

Michael (South Africa)  

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Jane Bulnes-Fowles July 19, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
Thank you all for your thoughtful replies! I am excited to hear that other people also feel there is value in beginning to talk about the design of products in the lean world, and not just the processes we use to create them. Hopefully this is just the beginning of our exploration of the overlap in these worlds and understanding the principles they share.

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Ferdi Grah July 24, 2013

Thanks for the interesting reflection.

I'am a Lean AND Desing Thinker from Germany and combine both in my daily work. 

A good start is to use DT as part of a continuous improvement workshop!

I also write on the subject on my Blog http://leanfreaks.wordpress.com/

Don't wait innovate...


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