Work backward to move forward

In this Big Picture Interview, figure out the true problems you want to solve before you plot a course of action.

Jennifer Ford is the North America presales design thinking lead for SAP – a long way of saying she works with SAP’s customers to help them understand and address the production, operations, and organizational problems they want to solve. At the SAP Manufacturing Industries Forum in suburban Chicago in June, she spoke about the value of design thinking and taking a holistic approach to problem-solving – working backward from desired outcomes rather than troubleshooting haphazardly. Afterward, Ford talked to Plant Services about why this approach is more effective and keys to making it happen.

PS: You say that asking the question “why?” is at the root of design thinking. What do you mean by that?

JF: Within many organizations the conversation starts with “This is what we do; it’s how we’ve always done it.” (But) it’s not enough to just understand what to do; you have to understand why it’s important.

Your pain points are rooted in things you put in place five years ago that don’t reflect how you work today, whether that’s technology, organizational structures, or something else.

The question is, what’s your real need? (When we go in to an organization,) the first part is talking to the customer and asking questions to get to, truly, what is the problem? And then it’s watching the way people work, watching how they do what they do, understanding the tools people use.

What is the outcome that you’re looking for? If the outcome is that you want as much uptime with as little amount of cost as possible, what do we do to be able to drive that outcome, and who are the people responsible for the activities to drive it? It’s not about what you do; it’s why.

PS: How is it then that organizations misidentify the outcomes they seek?

JF: We worked with a call center at a utility, and the initial problem they asked us to come in and talk about was their call center wait time was too long. But the (underlying) problem wasn’t necessarily the wait time; employees didn’t have the tools they needed or access to the resources they needed to answer questions succinctly and that frustrated the caller.

What are the needs? Where are the gaps? What do people have to accomplish? Work back from the ultimate outcome you’re looking for; that will help define the type of solution you need. When we’re invited in to do a workshop, we say, “Here are the other people in your four walls who should be in this meeting, too, because we need their perspective.” It’s getting them to really look at the problem holistically.

Listening is a key ingredient for any of these engagements, because there is a lot that people will tell you from a very simple question that’s 180 degrees away from what you thought it was going to be. You can miss out on a lot if you don’t listen to what people are actually saying.

And then you keep pushing them: “If that would be good, what if you could do this?” You continue to push them to think more broadly about possible solutions. It is absolutely about empathy to what people are doing. Nobody doesn’t want to do a good job.

PS: One of your other main points at the forum was that it’s not just one team that will be the hero in addressing problems with a design-thinking approach. Can you explain that?

JF: We were working with another organization; they were changing their business model to be more of a service offering than a product offering. Even the managers really did not understand what each individual leader’s role was supposed to be in that new model. We all walked into a room and had them define, “This is what we want our customers to experience; this is what experiencing that means.” And then they got to, OK, if that’s what this great experience looks like, then who’s responsible for those elements? As soon as they went through that process, they realized, OK, this is my team; this is what we have to do.

There are so many excellent examples of how American manufacturing has exploded at innovation and cost containment. To keep moving forward, we need to make sure that we look at ourselves in a different way, that we’re honest with ourselves about what we’re really good at and where we can do things differently to drive improvements even further than we have so far. You can do sit-ups and that’s great, but that’s only going to be working certain muscles. To be fit, you need to jog or do something else. In order to move your organization, you need to add a different exercise.

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