Status Quo Challenge: Design Thinking for Supply Chain Transformation

Author: Dyci Manns Sfregola 

First things first: If you aren’t familiar with the term design thinking, at a very high level, it revolves around a deep interest in truly understanding the customers for whom products and services are designed. Apple, for example, is a brand that is well-known for using design thinking principles. While design thinking has traditionally been very heavily used in product development, the core concepts easily translate to supply chain transformation.

Let’s consider two of those here: empathy and embracing uncertainty.

One of the main focuses of design thinking is to observe and develop empathy with the target user. In their book Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Toolkit for Managers, Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Olgivie detail some differences between the methods and logic used by traditional business professionals versus those used by designers.

“...design understands that products and services are bought by human beings, not target markets segmented into demographic categories. It is easy in business to lose sight of the real people...The reality of human beings and their needs fades as they are tabulated and averaged...” 

Do we not do this with our technology implementations in supply chain? How often do we forget about the human element and user experience and then wonder why user adoption is low, and, therefore ROI? On my very first digital transformation project, my Solution Architect told me to stop thinking about how “the planners” would use the system and to start thinking about how [insert name here] would use the system. What does (s)he do everyday? How can clicks be reduced? He encouraged me to put myself is their shoes and that’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. 

Along the same lines, Liedtka and Olgivie posit that business managers can learn from designers as designers:

“...master the skills of observation, of understanding human beings and their needs, while managers learn mostly to evaluate, an activity that rarely involves the kind of empathy that produces fresh insights.”

 I don’t regularly see this desire to genuinely understand and observe the daily life of the end users for whom we are implementing supply chain technology. The same Solution Architect I mentioned previously also scheduled hours and hours for us to sit with end users at the client site and literally watch them do their job in order to better help us create a user interface that would easily support their day-to-day. These “chair sides” were crucial in helping us better understand which functionality to prioritize as timelines and budgets tightened, and the end user involvement in design and development also excited users and contributed to user adoption. 

With regards to embracing uncertainty —

“...design is tailored to dealing with uncertainty, and business’s obsession with analysis is best suited for a stable and predictable world. That’s the kind we don’t live in anymore...no amount of data about yesterday will solve the mystery of tomorrow (Liedtka and Olgivie).” 

This should resonate with every supply chain leader especially now as we are in a time where we can not use historical data to inform planning and forecasts.

As a consultant, I observed two types of organizations when COVID-19 turned our worlds upside down: those that welcomed the uncertainty and those that were paralyzed by it. The former kept on with “business as usual,” embracing new ideas and initiatives, while the latter chose to put technology projects on hold only to realize later that that very technology is absolutely essential to remaining competitive right now.

A commonality I’ve found among companies that embrace uncertainty is that they don’t necessarily expect the “right” answer the first time and appreciate the process, something designers are very familiar with. I’ve seen transformation projects for various tools at different size and different age companies and companies that have a culture that appreciates the iterative process of creating better solutions without the pressure to find the right solution the first time around are the ones that have the most successful transformations in the long run. 

So where can you get started with leveraging design thinking principles for your supply chain projects?

First, ask yourself this: As you prepare for the road to recovery and implement new tools, are you creating a culture of “get it right the first time or else,” or are you setting your team up for success by encouraging creativity, risk taking and the exploration of new ideas? Have you built time into the project timeline for chair sides and user observation? 

I predict that the businesses that will be most successful coming out of this COVID-19 disruption will be the ones that allow their supply chain leaders to take risks, learn from failures, and encourage creative solutions, truly embracing design thinking. The industry is seeing unprecedented growth in the number of technology startups that are finding better ways to forecast and creating new algorithms for warehousing and inventory optimization. If you choose to implement any of these technologies, the results might not be exactly what you expect right away. Algorithms might require tweaking, formulas might need to be changed. The first 90 days could leave you thinking “Why did we leave Excel for this?!” But investing the energy and resources into an iterative design process will be well worth it. 

  • Love DESIGN THINKING. I’ve always believed in success principles…they are common sense. But my experience is that common sense is not common practice. Why is it that businesses and their technology partners more often than not simply to not include that time you noted to apply these principles of success?

    We seem to be the epitome of Santayana’s mantra “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A quote that is paraphrased to good effect as “Those who refuse to learn from the lessons of history are doomed to repeats it’s mistakes.”

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