Archive for April, 2010

Illustration of the 4th Design Thinking principle — Zoom Out for better view.

April 23, 2010

In my last post I described the basic principles of Design Thinking.

In this post I would like to illustrate the 4th Principle, which is a bit difficult to master: — Observe the Whole: Think about the Whole (Thinking by observing and zooming out — physically and psychologically).

This to my mind is the most important step in problem solving through Design Thinking and might challenge even the most skillful of Design Thinkers. Observing the whole would essentially mean to have a system view of a problem in totality. Why is that? This is because different parts of the system interact to produce the problem and until and unless we somehow manage to find the underlying relationships between different parts of the system 'wicked problems' would remain wicked and unsolvable. 

How do we do that? It is easier said than done. But let me illustrate the principle through an example to show what is involved at this step.

A Wicked Problem: The Story of the instrumentation failures

In a certain petrochemical plant in the Middle East I was once invited to solve one of the most nagging problem of the plant. In a year more than 1200 instrument diaphragms failed during operation leading to frequent stoppages of the plant which affected the operation of the process plant severely. One can appreciate the losses involved when a process plant stops even for a short duration. However the problem remained unsolved for 4 years before I visited them. 

What was happening?

These instruments were pneumatic that means air was needed to operate them. The diaphragms of these instruments were made of rubber. And these cracked on one side (the side receiving the air) in a random fashion. Naturally, people thought that the failure has something to do with the quality of the rubber. And they naturally blamed the manufacturer. Therefore, they concentrated on improving the quality of the rubber. They discussed with the suppliers and then they made many changes. The idea was to provide the best possible rubber so that the failure could be arrested. But it did not work. The number of failures stood at 1200 a year. Notice that the focus was on the part of the system (the rubber diaphragm) rather than on the whole system. 

What happened next?

Trying to see the whole system at work by 'Zooming out from the part'.

Step 1: Step back a little..

By stepping back we would like to see the system. As soon as we step back a little we see that all these pneumatic instruments were connected to air driers. An air drier dries up the air that is coming for a compressor so that the moisture in the air does not travel to the instruments and damage them. This incidentally was a very well designed and also very costly air drier. We checked the performance of the air drier and found that everything is in order — the drier is operating as it should. Nothing wrong. So, step back further…

Step 2: Step back further

As we step back further we then notice that these instruments and the air drier are connected to a very heavy duty Rolls Royce turbine compressor — again a fine and costly piece of equipment. This turbine compressor had a very funny problem, which I would discuss in another post. But for now all that I observe is that this compressor is sucking air through a suction pipe that is turned towards the ground (the compressor was placed at a level) and the opening of the suction pipe was about 5 feet off the ground level. So what? It does not tell me anything. Hence step further back…

Step 3: Step further back

Now I start noticing different things. Beyond the boundary of the plant on the southern side I find a sponge iron plant running. I always hate to go inside a sponge iron plant — it is extremely dirty and polluting. So, as usual, this plant too was spewing dirty red NOx laden smoke out of its chimneys. Then I look towards the western side I see the vanishing outlines of the clear blue sea. And I also feel the heat of the Middle East sun. Story goes, that in summer the temperature actually soars beyond 51 degrees Centigrade but the official figure never goes above 49 degrees C since once it crosses that limit a holiday has to be declared. Unfortunate employees — they miss out earning for free on forced holidays. Time to put things together.

Step 4: Putting things together.

Having come this far  out (physically and psychologically) from the humble rubber diaphragm I almost forgot about the poor creature. Now I have more or less seen the system. What does it comprise of? 1. Rubber Diaphragms 2. The instruments 3. The Air driers 4. The Turbine Compressor sucking air practically from the ground up 5. The polluting sponge iron plant 6. The beautiful sea 7. The extremely hot sun.

So how do I make sense of all these put together and how do they all relate to the problem at hand? Let us see whether we get any clue by putting all elements of the system together. Let us start by putting elements 5, 6, & 7 together. What happens?

Step 5: Putting points 5 + 6 + 7 together

When NOx + Strong sunlight comes together it produces ozone — a molecule of which has 3 oxygen atoms compared to the normal oxygen molecule which has 2 atoms. Hence Ozone is heavier than normal air. Note that the sea also produces ozone. So when we combine 5, 6 & 7 together we have a lot of ozone in the atmosphere. And wind in these latitudes flows from the south. So what? Hence let us add elements (1, 2, 3 & 4) to the elements (5, 6 & 7) and see what happens — that is all the elements put together.

Step 6: Putting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 7 togethereverything put together.

We understand that ozone is heavier than normal air because of its molecular weight (having 3 oxygen atoms instead of 2). Hence ozone would always cling to the ground and studies indicate that the ozone layer normally exists up to 4 feet above the ground. Ah! Ah! So the compressor suction pipe which is around 5 feet above the ground is sucking in a lot of ozone into the system and an air drier (element 3 in the system) does not separate ozone — it only takes out the moisture from the air. So what now comes to the instrument (element 2 in the system) and the rubber diaphrams (element 1 in the system) is air highly laden with ozone. We also know that ozone and rubber (of any kind) are strange bed fellows — like putting a snake and a mongoose together. The ozone in turn cracks up the rubber (called 'crazy cracks' something like the uncertain steps a drunkard would take from the pub to his home). You can now understand as to why we found the damage only on one side of the diaphragms (the air side). Once the cracks develop to a certain extent the instruments fail randomly. Now we get the answer, when we considered the total system as a whole.

The beauty is that all parts of the system are interconnected and interdependent to produce the 'wicked problem'.

Step 7: What is the solution?

You have by now guessed the solution. Turn up the suction pipe so that instead of sucking in a lot of ozone from the ground it sucks in normal air (desert air in this case). A simple but elegant solution that does not need a lot of effort and resources nor continuous effort to maintain. 

The client did exactly that and what was the result?

Six years have now passed — not a single failure of the troublesome diaphragm. From 1200 failures a year to Zero failure a year. The case is solved once and for all.

Hope I have been able to illustrate the 4th principle of Design Thinking — Zoom out (physically and psychologically) to view the whole system rather than focus on parts of the system.

The beautiful picture (thanks to Trichur) would help one to visualize the beauty of the Zooming Out principle.


General Principles of Design Thinking

April 12, 2010
In response to my previous post there were a few requests to list down the general principles of Design Thinking as applicable for organizations and individuals.

I shall attempt to do so and then illustrate the application of these principles through later posts. The order of writing down the principles one after the other has a logic, which I have found convenient to apply when solving problems. It is always possible to have minor variations in the order but this is the general and natural progression of the principles, when applied to solving live cases (any real case for that matter — organizational, product, processes, services, knowledge, quality, marketing, self development…..).

0th (Zeroth) Principle: Similar symptoms: Different Problems

All problems are contextual and therefore unique.

It means that even if the symptoms of two similar looking problems might appear to be the same the underlying reasons might be completely different thereby leading to different solutions. For example, we might have a headache for various reasons like — fever, exhaustion, digestion problems or from cold. While the symptoms appear similar the underlying reasons might be different in each case and therefore the treatment of the problem would differ according to the context and so would be the solutions. Therefore, all problems are to be looked at within a given context. As soon as the context changes so does the problem.

1st Principle: Challenge the assumptions: Start with a Zen mind

Quite often we think that we know the solution to a problem and go ahead in implementing the solution without having a second thought. In most cases it turns out that the solution was wrong and the nagging problem persists or repeats itself. This is a social waste of human capital and the society at large suffers. Why does this happen too often? This is because our individual perceptions are stored in our mind as experience, which we think of as very real and true. Why does this happen? When faced with a problem the mind plays the trick by bringing out the stored perceptions which we wrongly describe as experience or knowledge. It is nothing but a perception stored in the mind at some other point of time. It is at times useful like running away from fire or a tiger but not very useful to solve nagging problems. Hence the necessary step is to challenge such perceptions (or assumptions) and start looking at a problem with a Zen mind (or a beginner's mind). It does not matter how much experience one has — new links are to be formed to understand a problem deeply. And this can only happen if we start looking at things with a Zen mind.

2nd Principle:Work within Constraints: Go out of the box

It is bit paradoxical: Greater the constraints: better are the solutions. It means the beauty or elegance of a 'solution set' increases non-linearly with the amount of constraints. This is a mental discipline any Design Thinker must have. If necessary it might be a good idea to self impose as many constraints as possible. I think that the best innovations happen under an atmosphere of constraints. It necessarily means that with more constraints a problem solver is forced to think harder but 'out of the box'. It is sort of funny, that the outlines of this box are made up of all the 'knowledge' the problem solver had gained through solving previous problems. S(he) has to break out of this box to find new (that is dissolve his/her previous knowledge) to find elegant solutions to the problem, which would further enrich him/her with new knowledge and concepts. Hence a problem is not only defined by its operating context but also by the constraints imposed on the problem solver.

3rd Principle: Create the Paradox tree: Plant the Mystery

Coming through from the Zeroth Principle to the 2nd Principle we are now in a position to create a Paradox Tree — that is creating a set of interrelated paradoxes (you can find an example in my blog: ( Once done we now completely define the mystery of the problem to be solved.

4th Principle: Observe the Whole: Think about the whole (Thinking by observing & Zooming Out).

I feel this is the most difficult and critical part of the whole thing (Thinking by observing & zooming out) that might put to shame even the best Design Thinkers in the world. It is in this part that a problem solver gets the real idea of the inherent imperfections in the system that are preventing the system from performing at a desired level and in the desired manner. Not surprisingly therefore, this part is called the heuristic part. Because no one exactly knows how the Design Thinker gets the idea of the inherent 'system imperfections'. But we need not unnecessarily lose hope once we understand that any system is a web of interrelationship between the different parts of the system and one has to carefully understand the essential relationships operating at various levels and at different strengths and probabilities. Soon we get to see the imperfections — 'weaknesses' of the system where it needs to be corrected. System Thinking (from whole to the parts not parts to the whole) and a foundation of Chaos help one to successfully negotiate this vital step in the entire process. There are also some shortcut heuristic methods that help at times. But the best can be only achieved through System Thinking; its principles, relationships and the laws of how these relationships would change or transform over time. However, the validity of the imperfections are to be tested. The test is very simple enough. If the set of imperfections when connected properly helps us to answer the set of paradoxes or the paradox tree that we built through the application of 3rd Principle then the discovered set of system imperfections is correct and we may proceed further.

5th Principle: Create & Choose responses that eliminate, avoid, or inhibit the set of imperfections.

The idea is to generate multiple responses to the discovered 'imperfections' and then choose the most appropriate ones that eliminate the imperfections or avoid them or inhibit them from playing in the system. This is 'hand-on Design Thinking. A variety of methods can be used here — Visual thinking, Verbal thinking, Thinking by drawing & painting, Thinking by doing, Thinking by playing around, Intuitive thinking, Brain storming (various), Body storming, Dialogues, Slow Thinking, Imagining, Inversions, Bio-mimicry, Thinking through Story telling, Prototyping, Videos etc.. .. Once the ideas are in place, it then becomes a matter of choice as to what we choose for the final application. The set of solutions must pass the test of being appropriate, cost effective, viability (can be done with the least possible effort, time and resources to turn the ideas into reality). This is solely done through Analytical Thinking. As in the 4th principle here too it is a combination of both right and left brain thinking. 

6th Principle: Do and Check

Here the emphasis is on implementation of the selected ideas either as prototypes (if too risky) or direct implementation (trails). The basic idea is to monitor the performance of the design thinking. If it turns out to be OK then the ideas are accepted firmly. If not, then one has to go back and either revise the solutions or find new ones.

7th Principle; Convert into Algorithms & Binary Codes

That is: make it simple for everyone and keep it simple for everyone so that the newly designed or re-designed systems work smoothly as desired without the functionality being impaired in any way and people find it easier to operate. Saying differently it translates to the mantra: MISS (Make it Super Simple) KISS (Keep it Super Simple). Then only it has a chance of being accepted by the general public for its use and benefit.

The beauty however is, as I have seen, that once done correctly, it gives organizations benefit for years to come. It needs no frequent 'tweaking around'.

These are the 8 basic principles that are always applicable and are necessary for individuals and organizations to either learn or implement so as to survive and be successful in turbulent chaotic times.

But that is only a small part of the bigger story that unfolds. It improves the society in more ways than one. And to my mind that is the true purpose of Design Thinking and its applications that might be applied to any field of human endeavor. Isn't that wonderful. But to achieve that we must have new thinking within existing organizations and people armed with new thinking skills to help that transformation happen as and when needed.


Getting to The Untapped Knowledge in Organizations | 15inno

April 12, 2010

The problem is, the knowledge management databases usually become so large and unwieldy that they are unusable.  I can attest from experience that these systems often end up becoming digital piles of untapped information.  Finding what you want can be like finding a needle in a haystack.  Or, more accurately, it is like finding a specific needle in a stack of needles.

What’s the solution?

You might call it, “reverse knowledge management.”

Instead of posting knowledge which sits passively in a database waiting for someone to find it, you post your question to your “community” so that it can be answered at the time of need.  Of course, asking the world for an answer to your question is not new.  Yahoo/Google Answers did this a few years back.

Knowledge moves: Not in books.

Improving Social Well Being & Competitive Edge through Design Thinking.

April 11, 2010
Design Thinking is a way of solving problems — from simple to very wicked problems. Not the usual way we take to solve problems, which is mostly analytical. It uses the techniques and methods used by good Designers and artists. Therefore, it uses skills and faculties of the human brain like like Visual Thinking, Thinking by doing, Imagination, Intuitive Thinking and also Analytical thinking. That means that the approach attempts to utilize the whole of the brain rather than a part of it. Usually we use the left side of the brain (the analytical side) for normal day to day activities. Though useful to help us carry out our daily activities with ease it does not help us come up with very bright ideas. So, the basic skill that is needed is to see and treat a system as a whole and then come to its parts if necessary. By doing so, it attempts to see the relationships and the effect of such relationship between different portions of the system. Never the other way round. Why is that? Because by improving a part of the system the system does not improve.

However, seeing systems in this manner is a difficult task. Because it involves the whole brain — both the right and the left. In general, most people tend to use the left part of the brain more than the right part. And as it is true for any part of the human body — a part that is not used for a long period of time atrophies or loses its use. Our long years of education system reinforces this behavior since it relies on the accuracy and repeatability of the left brain. Hence over time the left becomes much more powerful than the right. Though it is difficult to believe, the right has tremendous power to change our destinies but is kept safely locked.

This is not to say that we don't use our right brain at all. Everyone has a certain amount of right-brain intuitive thinking? In fact there is a normal distribution curve that would say 10% have a lot of right-brain activity, 10% have very little right-brain activity, with the remainder somewhere in-between. To balance both parts of the brain would be the natural objective of anyone striving for growth, development and success. Herein lies the challenge, which can possibly be squarely met by adopting the principles and philosophies of Design Thinking, which to me,as a way of defining, is to bring about the balance of the left and right brains.

However, by using a team based approach that includes an experienced and naturally gifted designer the overall impact can be better. Adding imagination, creativity, inspiration from other industries, promoting innovation, and supplying a design process (implicit and explicit) alongside the internal knowledge of a client team will bring additional dividends that cannot be gained with a DIY approach, however much participants are encouraged to think "outside the box" for themselves…

Let me illustrate the philosophy and the principles of Design Thinking and its effect on an organization and society through a real life example.

A certain well known company (MNC) makes a variety of shampoo product. What they realized was the majority of the poor population in India can't afford to pay for the relatively costly shampoo bottles (large sizes). To them it makes business sense to manufacture and sell shampoo in bottles. It brings down the cost of manufacturing and logistic and thereby improves the bottom line. The company challenged this assumption (the 1st Principle of Design Thinking) and thought about how they can reach the rural poor with their product. They went for making small packets (sachets) containing 8 ml of the product and sold them dirt cheap at Re 1/- a packet. Soon they were earning more profits and capturing more market space with this new thought.

The problem however, was that demand started to grow almost exponentially. The company did not have the required infrastructure to meet the growing demand. They however thought about the constraints (2nd Principle of Design Thinking) and decided that they possibly can meet the growing demand if only their individual machines can deliver 80 sachets per minute rather than 60 sachets a minute. They tried it out and soon found that it became impossible to operate the machine. The machine vibrated too much from a level of 25 microns it went way above 160 microns. Such harmful vibration was damaging other machine parts and the downtime of the machines increased leading to lower productivity. 

In addition to this specific problem they discovered that they had other problems too, which were:

a) Variation in product quantity. Each sachet must contain 8 ml. However, for some unknown reason the quantity varied from 6 to 8 ml. The customers might feel cheated for having less quantity for what they pay.
b) Product wastage — 5% of the product was being wasted in the machine
c) The sachets burst at the seams — leading to product loss, product complaints and product recalls from their wholesalers
d) Worker's union refused to increase the productivity since they were not promised any extra benefit for doing so. They demanded a raise in their productivity linked bonus. However, they would not mind if the company purchased new machines that were designed for 80 sachets per minute.
e) The company did not like to invest in new machinery since the machinery had to be imported and the cost of import did not justify the investment.

This now brings up a number of paradoxes (a set of Paradoxes): (The 3rd Principle of Design Thinking)

1. Running the machine at higher speed: Lower vibration
2. Buying new machines: Without increasing infrastructure
3. Buying sophisticated machines: Lower costs
4. Increase production: Lower the rate of wastage
5. Increase production: Without paying extra as production bonus to workers
6. Increase speed of production; Better heat sealing of the sachets.

The paradoxes create the mystery that is now to be solved through Design Thinking

To do so, we now need an algorithm (4th Principle of Design Thinking) to solve the mystery.

How are we to do this. We need to Observe the whole system rather than concentrate on parts of the system or concentrate on each individual paradox. It makes sense when we try to look at the whole system by putting all the paradoxes together. It then makes meaning. (5th Principle of Design Thinking). The objective of the observation method is to find the inherent 'IMPERFECTIONS' of the system that produces the set of paradoxes.

The next step is to come up with suitable response against the 'IMPERFECTIONS' discovered through the 5th Principle. The response must be such that all the paradoxes are handled in one go. Leaving out one of them does not provide the answer. (6th Principle of Design Thinking).

Having found suitable responses the next step is to convert the responses to digital codes (binary codes) so that the responses can be implemented, everyone can understand them and anyone can then operate the new system. (7Th Principle of Design Thinking). At this stage involving people becomes necessary.

In this case the results of such Design Thinking turned out to be as follows:

1. The new machine could turn out 80 sachets per minute against 60 sachets that were produced earlier
2. In spite of the machine's higher speed the vibration level was almost imperceptible — down to 6 microns (even the operator could not feel it)
3. Wastage came down from 8% to 0%.
4. Variation of quantity in each sachet was 0%. Every sachet contained the desired 8 ml of product.
5. Bursting of the sachets at the seams reduced to zero. No product complaints and recalls.
6. The new systems were created in house at 1/8th the cost of the original imported machine.
7. No new infrastructure created. Older systems replaced at fractional cost.
8. Improved productivity without paying additional production linked incentives.

Notice that the response solved all the problems in one go. The whole system improved in one shot. It was not an incremental affair or a matter of continuous improvement or continual improvement. Everything happened in one go.

This is the power of Design Thinking and its principles. It improves the social well being, reduces environmental problems, improves social wealth by improving productivity and builds new competitive edge for an organisation that can't be copied by competitors.

You may like to watch a short (30 sec) video of the main issues here: