Design from Within

“The extent to which you have a design style is the extent to which you have not solved the problem.” – Charles Eames

Design That Matters is a non-profit company who faced a problem with global implications.  1.8 million premature babies die each year from a lack of consistent heat until they have the body fat and metabolic rate to stay warm.  Despite having the technology to solve this problem, incubators are not available in most poor countries and can be cost prohibitive.  Further without the necessary parts, training and expertise to maintain these machines, 98% of them are broken within five years and remain idle gathering dust.

After researching the problem and spending time in the field, the team realized if they could design an incubator made out of automobile parts, the chances of sustained success would significantly improve.  The engineering to heat the incubator was not complicated and could be solved with automotive parts, the auto industry had the distribution channels necessary to deliver those parts to the most remote regions and automobiles are one of the few technologies that can be reliably repaired in rural communities.  In other words, by leveraging what already exists in these communities, the company designed a “right sized” solution rather than promulgating a solution requiring an unrealistic level of development in means, expertise and infrastructure.

I believe implementing a system of continuous improvement should be approached the same way.  Rather than approach the problem with a “one size fits all” mentality, we should seek to first understand the capabilities of the organization, its processes and its people and then build an implementation to leverage these strengths.  As the goal of any implementation is to inspire people to create a compelling vision of the future and own the challenge of attaining it, we must first create opportunities for people to experience quick wins and build confidence in their ability.  If the change process requires skills, tools, and resources not readily available in the organization, we risk the process grinding to a halt as our approach is neither implementable nor sustainable in the organization.  Like the incubator, our “shiny new” continuous improvement process will quickly break down and start gathering dust.


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