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

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.


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