Tag Archives: design

Seeing What Makes Processes Tick

Daniel Weil is a partner of Pentagram and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.  Daniel has been working as an architect and designer since 1977 and his projects have included products, packaging, interiors and art direction for such companies as Swatch, Lego, and United Airlines.  Recently, Daniel was privately commissioned to create a gift for an architect.  The result was a one-of-a-kind clock that is both simple and complex and reflects his interest in investigating not only how objects look, but how they work.

“Objects like clocks are both prosaic and profound,” says Weil.  “Prosiac because of their ubiquity in everyday life, profound because of the mysterious nature of time itself. Time can be reduced to hours, minutes and seconds, just as a clock can be reduced to its component parts. This doesn’t explain time, but in a way simply exposes its mysterious essence.”

In addition to being a functional work of art, the clock represents a great example of the role visual management should play in process improvement.  While good visual systems don’t explain every detail of a process, they should allow a team see how a process works in real time and help “expose its mysterious essence.”  Further, by designing visual management systems which allow the team to see and easily interact with the inner workings of a process, it becomes easier to maintain, repair and improve the process as needed.

Like Weil’s clock, visuals should help explain, very simply, and elegantly, what make’s the process tick.  When done well, the blend of visual displays, visual controls and systems design give the team the opportunity to easily see the nuts and bolts of a process as they work the process.  Armed with the ability to “see” the process and its problems, teams are better able to both understand what impedes productivity as well as suggest ideas for improvement.

Contrary to the old saying, when it comes to visually management, I don’t just want to know what time it is…I want to know how to build the watch.

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The Power of an “Impossible” Goal

A $2,000 car?  The Chairman of Suzuki Motor Corporation said it was impossible…but, that didn’t deter Ratan Tata.  Motivated by a passion for meeting the needs of India’s impoverished people, the Chairman of Tata Motors assembled a five person engineering team (with an average age of 27) and launched a four year journey which began with an audacious goal and ended with a paradigm shift in the auto industry.

Rather than begin with a set of design criteria for the team to use when approaching the problem, Tata gave them an impossible goal: build a car for $2,000.  In fact, the cost target was the only fixed point with which the team was forced to work.  In every other aspect of the project, the team was challenged to “question the unquestionable” and utilize an open innovation model which considered ideas from anywhere and everywhere.

The audaciousness of the goal combined with the freedom to “break the rules” led to many industry leading innovations.  The Nano is the first time a 2 cylinder gas engine has been used in a car with a single balancer shaft.  Adhesives have replaced all rivets and mechanisms from a helicopter were used when designing the seats and windows.  The car’s 9 foot frame is 8% shorter than other compact cars, while providing the passengers 21% more interior room.   In addition, each part in the car serves a dual function, resulting in 1/2 the total number of parts as a normal car.  Finally, the team also had to think about its supply chain differently.  The Nano was designed in partnership with Tato’s vendors and suppliers, 100 vendors were co-located adjacent to the plant and the company developed a new business model for dealerships which slashed distribution costs.

The development of the Tata Nano is one of many examples of leaders inspiring teams to achieve seemingly impossible goals in the midst of tight deadlines.  As with each of these game changing innovations, it was Tata’s unwavering commitment to an impossible goal combined with a freedom to experiment by the engineering team which caused a shift in the paradigm.  All to often however, leaders take an opposite approach when trying to drive innovation.  The goals set are far too safe to force a new way of thinking and rather then giving teams latitude to experiment, they script their actions through detailed charters, procedures and return on investment criteria.  The combination of weak goals and stifling process boundaries kills creativity and ensures mediocrity.

If you want to experience the power of a inspired team who believes there is nothing they can’t accomplish, set an impossible goal and give your people the autonomy to discover radically new solutions to some of your toughest challenges.

“Impossible is nothing.” – Adidas

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.

Build In Order to Think

In his new book Change by Design, Tim Brown presents the idea that we should learn by making…or as he puts it, instead of thinking about what to build, we should “build in order to think.” The brain and the hand are inextricably linked. We rely on the use of our hands to help our brain process information and complete its cognitive search for patterns. Put another way by Stuart Brown (TED 2008), “The human hand in manipulation of objects is the hand in search of a brain, the brain is in search of a hand and play is the medium by which those two are linked in the best way.“

This sheds light on the drawbacks of the common approach to process improvement which relies on heavy data analysis to gain insights. This connection between thinking and using your hands would suggest that prototyping and iterative playing with process improvements may be a better way to achieve deeper levels of process thinking and learning, rather than by mere imitation and analysis alone.

Said another way, it is possible, that when we rely on an “intellectual“ approach to collecting and analyzing data in order to improve a process, we may be circumventing the one activity which leads to true thinking and innovation…the act of using our hands and prototyping in order to ”think“ our way through the process redesign.

Given the brain’s partnership with the hands, the key is to focus on the speed and interactivity of your improvements. The faster you put our ideas into the prototyping process, the faster you will begin to learn and refine your ideas. Start now…what is your 70% solution? Get your ideas into play and don’t get too wrapped up in the details.

Creating Global Design Principles @ Coca-Cola

Read a great article in Fast Company on the new design strategy David Butler (VP of Global Design) is implementing at Coke. Couple of key takeaways:

1. His goal has been to build a central design apparatus that can be specific and flexible that can roll out across the globe, but maintain focus. To do this, they focused on four core principles: every design whether point of sale, equipment, etc. needed to reflect 1) bold simplicity, 2) real authenticity, 3) the power of red, 4) and be “familiar yet surprising.”

2. To convey his message across the organization, he wrote a 3-page manefesto called “Designing on Purpose”…his key take away was that people across the organization did not have a shared understanding or definition of what design was and how design needed to win the war at the point of sale.

3. They have created a Design Machine that allows anyone across the globe to use a web-based design tool and digital-asset management system to create point of sale materials that are customized for local markets but adhere to the global brand strategy in less than 10 minutes.

The interesting thing about these key points is not how applicable each one is literally to other organizations, but rather how the use of key principles, messaging and decentralizing innovation can drive massive change in a mature, global organization.