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The Process Design Process

Wading Upstream to the Source

November 01, 2012

The first and most important element of the Process Design Process is the mindset of design - Design Thinking, which is characterized by deep respect for the Voice of the Customer and a relentless willingness to experiment, which is the root of practical creativity.

The real challenge in creating customer delight is to solve the unrecognized problem. One of your competitors is probably already working on the recognized one. But the level of insight required to move from stated wants and needs to those that are unrecognized is scary – and a huge differentiator.

As Steve Jobs said when asked about what kind of market research was behind the iPad: “None. It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want”. You can probably only get to this level of insight by being the consumer. Certainly, merely asking customers what they want through surveys or focus groups will not reliably uncover those latent wants and needs that customers don’t yet understand or can’t articulate.

Respecting the Voice of Customer


“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they‘d have said ‘a faster horse”.
- Henry Ford

“Deep Respect” for the VOC means moving beyond surveys and focus groups to experience the customers’ condition – to enter the customers’ environment – and to observe from different perspectives with a spirit of empathy, and to listen to the unspoken voice. In the TV show “House”, Dr. House is fond of saying that “everybody lies”, and so surreptitious observation is a key component of his diagnostic process – going so far as to canvas the patient’s home for evidence. I don’t advocate data-gathering predicated on breaking and entering, but it is certainly true that customers won’t tell you the whole story.

A couple of years ago I listened to the Chief Operating Officer of Victoria’s Secret explain some of the measures taken by his company to really understand their customers. One action was to pay customers to allow Victoria’s Secret people to inspect the customers’ clothes closets and dressers to see what products were they actually using. In an example from Tim Brown’s book, a designer working on a hospital design process visited the emergency room feigning a foot injury and videotaped the entire process from check-in to treatment from the patient’s perspective. If you’ve seen the movie “What Women Want” – there’s a great scene where advertising executive Mel Gibson ties to get in touch with female consumers by shaving his legs and trying on panty hose and cosmetics. That’s walking a mile in the customers’ shoes for sure!

As an aside, I was driving through northwest Ohio last weekend, and I happened across what may be the most unique yard ornament of all time - an 18-foot-high rooster totem pole carved from a tree!



I can only imagine the VOC process used to uncover the latent need behind this striking design. The farmer's wife probably said something like: "Honey, I am tired of looking at that dead tree in the back yard. I wish you would do something with it" - and her husband ran with it. This illustrates the potential problem behind "insight" into unspoken customer needs - sometimes we guess wrong!

An Open Spirit of Experimentation


The second important element of design thinking is an open spirit of experimentation. There is an emerging theory that no process idea is truly original – that everything is a remix. Creativity is less about generating truly original ideas and more about borrowing, remixing, and rearranging existing ideas - and good solutions are a function of evaluating lots of those remix possibilities.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Linus Pauling said, “To have a good idea, you must have lots of ideas.” Ideation is like taking a good photograph – the secret is to take lots of photographs, then sort through and find the good one. Natural selection operates by the same mechanism: the creativity embodied in nature is a result of billions of mutations, most of which fail, but some of which lead to useful adaptations.

Tim Brown is CEO of a design company called IDEO. In his book Design Thinking, he says “…design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process; done right, it will invariably make unexpected discoveries along the way, and it would be foolish not to find out where they lead.” When designing a new process, the challenge is to find a way to build process prototypes so that many ideas can be evaluated quickly and cheaply. Fortunately, there are powerful software tools to create process models for running virtual pilots or trials – more on this subject below.

Getting There From Here


With Design Thinking in place, the next ingredient for the recipe is a practical road map to guide activities. You can think of this as a set of critical questions that are segmented into logical steps – one step building upon the answers from the previous step. I prefer the DCDOV five-step project road map – that’s Define -> Concept -> Design -> Optimize -> Validate – because it most accurately outlines the flow of activities in a design project.

Using distinct phases allows for checkpoints along the way to ensure that critical questions are all being answered without shortcuts. There are certainly other road maps that can work; the most important elements is the critical questions that are expressed, because they guide the selection of appropriate activities and tools along the way. Here’s the critical questions aligned with DCDOV.

1. Define
  • Who is the customer?
  • What do they want/need?
  • What is the problem to be solved?
  • What are the customers willing to pay for a solution?
  • What are the business constraints?
  • When does this need to be completed?
  • Who is going to do it?
  • How would we measure success?

2. Concept – Create Choices
  • What kinds of solutions might work?
  • Has anyone else done this successfully?
  • Unsuccessfully?
  • Are there solutions from related or unrelated areas that might apply?
  • What can we remix to create a new solution?

3. Design – Converge on a Solution
  • What specific design offers the best solution?
  • How do you know?
  • What are the design specifications?
  • Is it feasible (functionally possible)?
  • Is the design sustainable?

4. Optimize
  • How robust is the design to its environment?
  • What measures are necessary to minimize variation in execution?
  • What are possible failure modes?
  • Is the design lean (no waste)?
  • What modifications can be made to increase value?

5. Verify
  • Does the design do what it was intended to do?
  • Does the design hold up under all conditions of use?
  • Was the target cost achieved?
  • Are training and support systems in place to assure a successful launch?

Next Steps


What are other ways you can learn more about process design thinking? Check out some of these recorded Webcasts:
- Bill Hathaway

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