Lean by Design: The Synthesis of Lean and Design Thinking

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Boeing employees have learned, from hard-won experience, innovation at the scale of aerospace requires functional groups to work together.

Technologically advanced systems must interoperate in a system-of-systems context. Design Thinking is particularly effective in situations where there are multiple dimensions to consider, layers of meaning that challenge linear logic, and many gaps in understanding. And it provides a solution to one of the thorniest leadership questions of the innovation movement: How to do innovation?

Subsequently through Lean, Boeing has maintained competitive advantage with continuous incremental improvements to its products and services by eliminating waste. In the traditional practice of Lean as institutionalized at Toyota, seven types of waste are identified: overproduction; inventory, waiting, motion, transportation, rework and over-processing.

But in the first chapter of the book, “Lean Thinking,” authors James Womack and Daniel Jones identify an eighth waste type: goods and services that do not meet the needs of the customer. When that which is produced is a poor fit or unsuitable as measured against what the customer values, it is usually because the producer has disregarded or is totally unaware of the value opportunity.

This is where the concepts of Lean and Design Thinking can merge to create a synergistic multiplying effect between product and process, resulting in greater quality and higher value for less cost.

Those already familiar with Lean methods can help facilitate the melding of Lean and Design Thinking in service of Boeing’s vision to out-innovate the competition. Finding the synergies and blending the strengths to maximize and leverage both is clearly an opportunity. The goal of this article is to encourage stronger dialog between Lean and Design Thinking practitioners and to find ways to unify these methods.

The concept is simple: bring the product and value-chain stakeholders together in a unified design process where products are developed together with the operations that will produce them. This will provide the flexible knowledge base for innovators to work toward achieving the best alternative outcomes for each respective area; ultimately bypassing costly post-production changes.

Today’s business environment is about receiving more for less. The expectation is that businesses must provide more valuable products and services at lower costs. The idea of “better, faster, safer, cheaper” has dominated business thinking since the early Lean movements of the 1970s.

But today customers equate value with products and services that are not just simply better, but innovatively better. The market is calling for game changers. Further, the expectation is that those innovations should resonate with why a company is delivering them in the first place. The why must map to a shared belief between both the supplier and the customer that the service or product truly has additional value. The writing on the wall suggests innovative is the new better, with faster, safer and cheaper simply expected.

This emergent paradigm is not just about the ability to innovate faster, but to be able to do it over and over again; quickly, reliably and with high quality. Customers reward the speed of development for innovative new solutions only when the solution resonates with their perceptions of value.

The Design Thinking learning curriculum had its origins in a joint program started at Stanford University in 1958 between the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Fine Arts. The deeply collaborative Design Thinking methodology, with its human-centered focus, enables the shift to customer-centricity.

Twenty-first century businesses embrace design methods as a way of accessing and leveraging the creative consciousness of employees. Figure 4 shows the Design Thinking process flow as taught inside Boeing, with key actions at the various phases, against the backdrop of a reference framework.

The development of human-centered design standards (ISO 9241-11:1998, ISO 9241-210:2009, and ISO 26800:2011) introduced a broad definition of usability, closely aligned with business objectives, and laid out fundamental principles for designers to follow in system design contexts. These include:

  • Ensure the project integrates the users’ wants or needs and the environment in which they work or live.
  • Ensure designers know who the users are and how the system should fit into their lives or their work.
  • Make the demonstration of usability (in the broad sense of quality-in-use) the objective of the design team.
  • Form a flexible team that will understand and address all aspects of the users’ experience with the system.

While Lean methods apply to business optimization, streamlining processes and eliminating waste, Design practice is focused on business transformation and is driven by innovation in all areas of the business.

From a Design Thinking perspective, innovation endeavors begin with more than just detailed customer knowledge; a level of insight often referred to as “customer empathy” is also required. In this mindset, employees are challenged to:

  • Start by developing deep understanding of the customer, their feelings about the context within which they operate, and their key business challenges and opportunities.
  • Use that empathy to envision a better world on their behalf.
  • Set discrete goals that will give life to that vision.
  • Then innovate to make it so.

Design Thinking is also inclusive of a systems paradigm (aka systems thinking) and shares principles with the systems sciences, such as:

  • Holism as a methodology.
  • Integration as a direction.
  • Humanism as a task and responsibility.
  • Openness as an ecology.
  • Purposefulness as behavior.
  • Choice as a driver.
  • Multidimensional as structure.
  • Counter-intuitive as an understanding.
  • Emergence as a property.

Thus, useful innovation starts with customer empathy and a vision derived from that empathy. By developing detailed customer knowledge, we understand the why that motivates a particular customer, and this gets to the heart of anticipating their needs. Starting with why leads to discovery of the what.

This approach of targeted innovation is counterintuitive. Asked to describe a process for innovating, many people start by talking about ideas. Companies and organizations striving for innovation often sponsor idea fairs. Such exercises are wasteful and perhaps even destructive to the organization’s ability to achieve their innovation goals. What should come first is getting to the right articulation of a customer value-creation challenge. Getting this right is the secret sauce to outperforming the competition and is foundational to the creation of a culture of innovation.

Design Thinking offers a range of powerful and standardized tools that guide the user toward development of a deep understanding of the why. Further, it facilitates a smooth process for evaluating iterations in thinking, building and learning to identify what and how. This is an innovation paradigm.

Ultimately, the task is not simply designing something and making it work well at the least cost. Rather, it is to design the right something and communicate the connection between that thing and the target customers’ or users’ activities or feelings. Discovering customer needs takes time and requires intentional activities like observing and conversing with them, forming relationships, and gaining insights into the rough spots in their daily lives.

Design Thinking can be taught and mentored, and is a repeatable process. But how do we take advantage of this? How can we be innovative and lean simultaneously?

This synergy can be realized through the blending of Design Thinking and Lean practice at the very onset of product development, more specifically, with the direct and intentional application of design principles and practice to Lean. In fact, Lean already has a practice that approaches that ideal -- the Production Preparation Process, or 3P.

Instead of just using Lean to fix existing problems in the manufacturing or delivery process, 3P takes Lean upstream for integration into new product design from the start. This is where Lean can have the most influence on both the product and its value-chain. The addition of Design Thinking to Lean methods provides the advantages of deeply understanding human needs and developing alternative designs that create breakthrough value.

Designing the value-chain at the onset of the innovation process using proven Lean principles has benefits. It results in products that are more valuable, require less initial capital investment, and have lower ongoing cost for production. This facilitates achieving the very essence of the concept of more for less.

By Miriam Grace, David L. Smith, Liz Juhnke, Steve Dalton

Figure 1 - Design thinking

Design thinking image

Design Thinking methods iterate in a continuous feedback loop to foster innovation.
Boeing image