Improving Social Well Being & Competitive Edge through Design Thinking.

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:

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