GE is a proponent of Six Sigma, a datadriven process aimed at achieving measurable business results. Do you apply it to design?
Yes. Every employee is trained in Six Sigma. Our Design for Six Sigma (DFSS) process uses tools that develop and analyze data to make sure our design is focused in the right direction. GE Healthcare product development is not a linear process where the engineers make something and "toss it over the wall" to the designers and walk away. We work in cross-functional teams that include design, engineering and manufacturing and often distribution and assembly as well.
How do you get design, engineering and manufacturing in agreement?
We start with the customer. The first part of Six Sigma involves developing a "critical-to-quality list." Our cross-functional teams have to first identify and agree upon the patient or customer needs that absolutely must be met. This investigation drives the introductory documentation for each new product.
How much of your product design is done in-house?
Nearly all. Our Global Design Group is headed by Seth Banks, who manages a worldwide staff of some 35 industrial and interactive designers. They are linked by collaborative software. With our design studios in different cultures and continents, we get a tremendous variety of concepts at the brainstorming level.
Are your designers directly involved in product research?
Very involved. Through user observation research and focus groups, our designers gather information about the medical procedure for the product, ergonomics, patient positioning requirements, the size of the patient, how they get on and off the product, needed accessories -- all the things that will help them corroborate data that the engineering teams are collecting. Their research also looks at how a product might be serviced. For instance, certain parts that may need more service attention must be located appropriately and not require a lot of lifting. A service person working independently should be able to easily access the area that needs the most frequent maintenance.
Does your user observation research include the patient as well as the hospital technician?
We start the observation process in the waiting room because our products are so far-reaching that the enterprise software starts right at the admission desk.
Even that is changing quickly and is now starting in the patient's home.
What is the balance between observation research and focus groups?
Observation research far outweighs our use of focus groups. We identify opportunities to improve productivity, workflow and efficiency by watching how people use current products -- not just ours but our competitors' as well. Once we get all that information, we confirm it by conducting interactive focus groups around a product to ensure that what we saw and what we are attempting to do will add value to the customers. Sometimes you can get very enamored with an idea that customers don't see as a true productivity enhancement. We have had a number of occasions where customers have said, "That's nice. But what about this?" That's terrific feedback.
Are your designers also involved in developing new product ideas?
Yes. For example, when laptop computers came out, our designers thought that medical equipment should provide the same kind of mobility and flexibility.
In 1996, we began developing ideas for portable ultrasound equipment. Our design studios worldwide brainstormed this idea and worked with our technology teams to bring the idea to life. The result was the LOGIQ Book, GE's portable ultrasound scanner introduced three years ago. It has been very successful.
We sell some 20 different kinds of ultrasound products, and our LOGIQ Book portable technology provided an answer to the many different user interfaces that customers have. We were able to keep the same user interface -- same nomenclature, same buttons -- on a $200,000 high-end piece of equipment as on a $40,000 portable unit, so if you can operate one, you can operate the other. That's been a huge selling point, because right now the "half-life" of hospital technicians could be six months. Consistent user interface means hospitals don't have to re-train a person on nine different pieces of equipment.
Why is design still important when your medical products often represent major breakthroughs in technology?
Cutting-edge technology is not enough. Our products are roughly in the same price category as our competitors'. The difference is in the features. Design is what sets our products apart. When a customer pays $2 million for an MRI machine, everything needs to come together seamlessly when a user walks up to it. Design creates the experience that is most directly related to the customer's needs -- the visual aesthetics, the interface between the product and the user, the creation of the right environment. Also, if a hospital buys several products from us, design helps us communicate the fact that the newly acquired product can be easily integrated into the fold. It does that by presenting a unified and consistent look.
Are current design trends considered when designing, say, a cardiovascular imaging system or mammography machine?
We don't look at fads because they don't last long.
We do look at worldwide trends in architecture, fabric design, and consumer and automotive products.
We try to create an environment that is familiar and reassuring to the patient by selecting colors that will put them at ease and materials that feel warm, soft and comfortable.
How much of the design focuses on usability?
Ergonomics drives everything in our product development -- the location of the controls, the product's ability to move in a manner that doesn't necessitate a lot of physical exertion on the part of the technician to position a patient. As a global company, we have to make sure that the product is adaptable enough to accommodate a variety of situations and users, from petite technicians to lanky operators.
What must a design prove before it can be implemented?
It has to meet the original customer "critical-to-quality" criteria identified at the outset. Our designers have to be able to measure and hit the criteria before they finish the design.
Over the past five years, GE Healthcare revenues have grown from $5 billion to $10 billion. Has that changed your approach to design?
We offer many more products, so conveying a consistent image in the marketplace is essential.
Design must take a front-and-center position and bring disparate businesses together. Also, as we acquire different companies, often it's not our own organic technology that we offer. It's extremely important that the newly acquired company be integrated into our brand from a design standpoint so our equipment has an integrated look and feel.
When did you first begin to appreciate design as a business resource?
When I headed marketing at GE Plastics, I developed a broad sense of design, particularly from European colleagues. At the time, the idea of incorporating industrial design into our strategy wasn't prevalent in the U.S. In the plastics business, I saw design used across different applications and industries, and I started to understand how it could lead to out-of-the-box thinking. Designers would come in and look at a problem and not immediately seek a technical solution, but look at what could be done. They looked at new applications, new forms. For example, when baby bottles moved from being made out of glass to plastic, manufacturers remained functionally fixated on thinking that baby bottles had to look like the glass ones.
Suddenly, a designer thought to suggest, "Why don't you make two tubes so babies can put their hands through it." The use of plastic enables that possibility.
The plastics experience opened my eyes to how design ideas could be applied in so many different ways.
Why don't more business leaders see design as offering more than aesthetic appeal?
People are functionally fixated. A chair is a chair. It's not until a creative designer builds something completely different that you say, "That's it! That's the answer! That's the differentiator!" The other day, I saw a design award for a pair of baby nail clippers made from plastic with a magnifying glass at the end. You say to yourself, "Why didn't someone do that 20 years ago?" It's something that simple. When you see a good design, it knocks you off your feet. Unless you've been exposed to innovative design, your view is more utilitarian.
Do GE Healthcare designers frequently incorporate new materials into products?
GE Healthcare has always worked with GE Plastics and with our global research center to seek out new materials -- materials that will provide greater strength-to-weight ratios, materials that will require less finishing so we can use the structural elements as design elements and not need covers where they are not necessary, especially if you have to take them off to service a product.
New materials have always been critical to driving design innovation. Years ago I read an article in Harvard Business Review that described how air-conditioning and super-strength steel eliminated the necessity for low buildings with a modest number of windows. The advent of steel changed architecture.
And air-conditioning allowed architects to put glass all around a building and make open-looking, towering skyscrapers. New materials must always be taken into consideration.
How is design relevant to your corporate goals?
It improves our corporate image. It helps us communicate more effectively with our customers. It helps us sell and break into new markets. It contributes to increased profits. Design, in a broad sense, reflects GE Healthcare by the way that our products appear. It's the means to communicate the quality and technology inside. It's essential for making the product exceptionally functional and intuitive to operate.
How is design changing in the healthcare industry?
Today when we think about designing, say, a new MRI system, we don't just think about designing the product; we think about designing the entire radiology suite. Design in the next ten years will move beyond the product. It will move beyond workflow. It will get into the whole work environment and what that means.
Hospitals in the future will be very different places.
They will have different ways of interacting with the patient. The screening and treatment plan will start on a molecular level and involve minimally invasive procedures.
We have to think about setting the course for how design can affect the whole healthcare experience.