Innovation & Design

How Business Is Adopting Design Thinking


At GE, P&G, and other companies, a design perspective is a problem-solving apparatus that can be applied companywide

When the best and brightest managers from GE (GE) attend the company's Crotonville learning center in Ossining, N.Y., for the Technical Leadership Development Course, they start by reading a comic book. For many of the handpicked participants, this is their first, uncomfortable encounter with design. They're stretched further over the two-week training as they're asked to decribe their toughest problem in a haiku and draw workflow and patient experience maps.

For Lawrence Murphy, the chief engineer of global design for GE Healthcare who leads the sessions and helped start the program, the goal is to equip employees with new problem-solving tools to help the company evolve to "imagination at work" from its focus on operations efficiency tool Six Sigma.

Managers looking to build design thinking throughout the organization can learn valuable lessons from pioneers such as GE Healthcare, Procter & Gamble (PG), and Philips Electronics (PHG). In addition to hiring design thinkers from schools, they have developed in-house programs to bring people—from all functions of the organization—to think through this lens.

Discomfort Is Good

Elevating design has boosted innovation and the bottom line at companies like GE. According a 2003 report by the Danish Design Center, increasing design activity such as design-related employee training boosted a company's revenue on average by 40% more than other companies over a five-year period. But the transition can prove difficult, and trying to convince experienced managers of the value of design-led innovation can lead to dead ends.

"We warn them that they'll be uncomfortable," says Peter Coughlan, who co-leads the transformation practice at design consultancy IDEO. "I tell clients you won't understand it until you experience it." Changing a company's culture can take years, he says, but the quickest route is to get managers to think about themselves as designers of their own organizations, which will help build support at all levels.

The trick, says Cynthia Tripp, marketing director for global design at P&G: "Don't turn it into an education program. Turn it into a problem-solving machine." Tripp has worked for the company for 21 years and approaches her own work with the same attitude. "Design education is not what we've been doing," she says. "I am trying to grow the business."

P&G operates offsite design thinking workshops that bring together employees from across the consumer-products giant, including R&D, market research, and purchasing, to use design methods such as visualization and prototyping to solve real problems for the company. The workshops, run around the world by volunteer employees called facilitators, last anywhere from a half-day to a week.

The program began in 2005 as part of former Chief Executive A.G. Lafley's Design Thinking Initiative, launched in 2001, and was led by Claudia Kotchka, former vice-president for design innovation and strategy. Although Kotchka retired last spring and Robert A. McDonald took over as CEO on July 1, company executives say that P&G plans to conduct more workshops and build design thinking into more activities.

Beating Their Criteria

In the past year, the number of facilitators grew to 175 from 100 and design thinking has started to spread organically, Tripp says. P&G offices in Latin America, Europe, and Asia are also starting workshops.

P&G measures the performance of design-thinking inspired ideas and products, says Tripp. In those terms, "We're beating our success criteria. Quantitative measures show we're doing very well."

Robert Schwartz, formerly associate director of P&G's Global Design Organization, is bringing some of this knowledge to GE Healthcare, where he has been general manager of global design for the past two years.

To nudge employees to use these creative skills, Schwartz says, GE measures and rewards them not only on what they achieved but also how they achieved it, based on "growth traits" such as clear thinking, inclusiveness, and imagination. When these traits become used more widely, "the results in the marketplace are remarkable."

The focus on design-led innovation helped Philips Lighting to transform itself over the past decade from a company that simply pushed products into the market into one that designs them with customer desires in mind, says CEO Rudy Provoost. His business, for example, is no longer just about light bulbs, but about designing ambience for consumers. Provoost says the company hopes to provide the bulbs and software to enable consumers to be their own lighting designers.

To support this culture, the company created the role of chief design officer, now held by Philips Design CEO Stefano Marzano, to participate in strategy discussions. Also, Philips Design employees lead workshops that involve case studies and project work about "high design," the company's term for its product development process, which integrates design into other functions such as marketing and technology and focuses on the end user. "We employ disciplines as diverse as psychology, cultural sociology, anthropology, and trend research, in addition to the more conventional design-related skills," says Heleen Engelen, Philips Design's senior design director for lighting.

Certainly, design thinking is not the only mechanism these corporations use to achieve growth. But for now, says GE's Schwartz, "if there's a box of crayons, we're a favorite color."

Wong is a lifestyle and real estate reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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