The APQC Blog

Design Thinking: Doorway to Improved Process Problem Solving?

 “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
Abraham H. Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

In my last blog we discussed how process management is faced with anomalies, new challenges, and problems that cannot be addressed by traditional methodologies. One of the key drivers behind this is the need for customer-centricity, which is accentuated by digital initiatives with the grand goal of improved customer experience.  

As discussed last time this requires process and performance management teams to incorporate customer-centric methodologies like design thinking, customer journey maps, and end-to-end process design into their proverbial toolbox. Today we are going to focus on the methodology cited as a crucial skill gap in process teams (43 percent)—design thinking.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is human-centric, solutions-based approach to problem solving. It is particularly useful for addressing complex or ill-defined problems and leveraging brainstorming and iterative prototype and test cycles. There are traditionally 5 phases in the methodology:  

  1. Empathize—understand the customer and their needs.

  2. Define—scope the problem from the customer perspective.

  3. Ideate—brainstorm potential solutions.

  4. Prototype—develop minimally feasible models of potential solutions.

  5. Test—conduct a series of assessments on the applicability of the prototypes.

Why is it valuable?

There are multiple ways that design thinking can provide value. But there are two distinct reasons that process teams should consider it.  

The first reason is rather explicit. By its very nature, design thinking is customer-focused. The first phase of design thinking establishes the needs, applications, and challenges of the customer—internal or external. This means everything that follows is scoped and developed in the context of the customer.

The second reason leads back to the inspirational quote at the beginning of this blog—it expands potential solutions from a singular tool to a full toolbox. There is a vast array of traditional and technological solutions available to address the organization’s problems.

Unfortunately, our decisions tend to be colored a multitude of cognitive biases. On one end of the spectrum people are comfortable with the one or two methods they know and apply them regardless of fit. At the other end people become fixated with the latest and greatest technique or technology (e.g., automation) to the exclusion of other solutions.

The ideate phase of design thinking helps teams innovate and addresses cognitive biases through group brainstorming with the goal of finding multiple potential solutions to test and refine. During our recent research on robotic process automation (RPA) we found that best-practice process teams use methods like design thinking to assess improvement needs and determine the right solution—be it automation, machine learning, new features in existing systems, or traditional process re-engineering.

Next Steps—Help Guide Our Research

As we noted in the last blog, APQC is conducting additional research around the impact of changes in organizational needs on process and performance management teams and conducting deep dives into the solutions (e.g., customer-centric tools and advanced technologies).

We are currently scoping a project on design thinking as a method to improve customer-focused problem solving. Please take five minutes to share your thoughts and experience. All surveys must be completed by Monday, April 30.

For more process and performance management research and insights, follow me on twitter at @hlykehogland or connect with me on LinkedIn.