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?