Design Thinking Your Way Into Innovation

The Harvard Business Review recently ran a great article on Design Thinking and how thinking like a designer will transform the way you develop services, processes, and even (operating) strategy. The article, which starts off by noting:

Thomas Edison created the electric lightbulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it. The lightbulb is most often thought of as his signature invention, but Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlor trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful. So he created that, too. Thus Edison’s genius lay in his ability to conceive of a fully developed marketplace, not simply a discrete device. He was able to envision how people would want to use what he made, and he engineered toward that insight.

has some very good points. Innovation is often powered by a thorough understanding, through direct observation, of what people want and need in their lives because any innovation that doesn’t make someone’s life easier is not likely to catch on. And I think the author, Tim Brown of IDEO, is right when he says he believes that design thinking has much to offer a business world in which most management ideas and best practices are freely available to be copied and exploited. After all, simply asking a designer to touch up an existing idea is tactical while allowing a designer to come up with ideas that better meet your market’s need is strategic, and there’s much more value in strategic work than there is in tactical.

In addition, innovation also involves (rapid) prototyping, to allow a design team to quickly zoom in the solution the users really need. The prototyping should not be rigid, but should be flexible in nature and require only as much time, effort, and investment as are needed to generate useful feedback and evolve an idea. It’s about getting to the solution, not getting bogged down in the process.

Furthermore, the process works for services and processes as well as it works for products. The author gives an example of service innovation undertaken by Kaiser Permanente, which undertook a project to make its nursing staff more efficient so they could deliver better patient care. At their hospitals, nurses often spent the first 45 minutes of their shift at the nursing station being debriefed by the outgoing shift on patient status. After working through a project to re-engineer the information capture and exchange process, which included the addition of customized software that could be used by nurses to quickly capture information in a friendly format during the shift, the amount of time required to pass information at a shift change reduced substantially while increasing patient care quality. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty rare for a nurse to comment “ I’m an hour ahead, and I’ve only been here 45 minutes” or “[This is the] first time I’ve ever made it out of here at the end of my shift.

So how does a design process work? While it’s different for each project, the three generic stages of inspiration (recognizing an opportunity), ideation (generating, developing, and testing ideas), and implementation (where a path to market or implementation is charted) are common for all projects. Note that the three stages are not necessarily linear. Sometimes you’ll bounce back and forth between them until you have the right solution. But if you make an effort, you’ll get there.

So what does this mean for supply management professionals? If you can identify a problem, you can identify an opportunity. And if you can identify an opportunity, you can identify a solution that improves service and saves money with a little bit of innovation. They key is to be in the right frame of mind.