In a quest to navigate turbulent markets and deliver good services, organizations have adopted various approaches to optimize workflows, achieve adaptability, and foster innovation.  Design thinking has helped them innovate and stay ahead of the curve. It has emerged as a powerful tool to achieve innovation and satisfy users.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s more to design thinking than just aesthetics.  It is a user-centric approach to problem solving that can really help organizations deal with wicked problems, aka problems whose solutions are hard to label as either right or wrong. It is a process that integrates user desirability, technological feasibility and economic viability to develop products and services that stand the test of time. Companies from almost all the fields and governments from all over the world have adopted design thinking for various reasons such as getting a competitive edge, providing better public services, and introducing a disruptive product.

There are other approaches that organizations adopt for better performance as well. Software vendors bring in methods like Lean thinking and Agile Software development into their organizations for better efficiency. However, they are different from design thinking and it is important to know how they differ from each other.

Lean Thinking to Create Value

When the sales of Toyota cars went through the roof in the 1950s, the automobile industry did not anticipate that the trend would continue until the end of the century when western car manufacturers were struggling to keep up with the Japanese companies. They did not know that the Toyota Production System would revolutionize not only the manufacturing sector, but also other industries. Lean methodology as imagined by Japanese engineers was originally to avoid inconsistencies, and waste accumulation in the assembly line. As word got out of the Toyota Production System, everyone from automobile manufacturers to technology companies started to implement their version of the TPS and failed. Only in the 1990s did engineers extract the core guiding principles that helped Toyota succeed. Now organizations have realized that Lean principles can make implementation easier, flexible and sustainable.

Traditionally, Lean was associated with cutting costs, waste and people, but with Continuous improvement and respect for people as its two pillars, Lean has focused on adding value to enterprises. Continuous improvement as the name suggests refers to the process of constantly identifying opportunities for streamlining work and reducing wastes. In this context, streamlining and eliminating wastes means doing away with wait-times and rework rather than layoffs. During the Continuous Improvement process, engineers identify a problem, plan a solution, execute it, and review the results.

In Lean Thinking, “waste” refers to anything that the customer is unwilling to pay. By constantly trying to eliminate wastes, Lean organizations respect people’s time. Lean thinking’s Respect to People does not end with customers; it extends to the organization’s employees as well. Instead of just instructing employees what to do, Lean leaders encourage the employees to tackle problems and make decisions in critical situations. By doing so, Lean organizations create value in the minds of employees in the work floor. In technology companies, Lean transformations have found significance during implementing new information systems due to its emphasis on efficiency and productivity. So, it is safe to say that Lean thinking is all about creating value.

Agile Software Development for Flexibility

In the 1970s, software developers realized that the traditional waterfall method of developing software applications wasn’t efficient and it took a long time for them to get software to the market. They came up with a brilliant idea of splitting the project into iterative sequences of work called sprints. A sprint is the time allotted for a team to complete a phase of the project and it ends when the time expires. Developers start working on the next phase even if they feel that the previous phase needs some changes. The finished phase is then tested by customers themselves and the feedback is used to improve the application.

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development written in 2001 has pointed out four central principles for software development.

  • The first one is prioritizing individuals and their interactions over processes and tools. This is because developers can get bogged down in processes and that might hinder progress. It will also enable coordination between business people and developers
  • The second principle is to focus on the working software instead of comprehensive documentation
  • The third one is to collaborate with customers for feedback. Live testing of the product will give insights and help the developers address concerns
  • The last principle is about teams responding to changes rather than following a plan

The most popular Agile development models are Scrum and Kanban. The Scrum model uses time boxes to iterate on a product in two-week sprints while the Kanban uses a visual signaling mechanism to control the work in progress. Businesses have to keep up with the rapid technological development and Agile has helped them to be cost effective and achieve efficiency in terms of time to market.

Design Thinking for Innovation

Organizations have adopted Lean, Agile, and in some cases both for streamlining and building efficient products. But both Lean and Agile fall short when it comes to addressing wicked problems. Organizations that struggle to introduce a disruptive product and those who want to provide state of the art public services often struggle with these problems. Design thinking’s five phases – Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test – are designed to find solutions to unknown problems that haunt all organizations alike. While Lean thinking and Agile methodology focus on providing value and adaptability, Design Thinking is a process that fosters innovation in organizations. With the scope of work vastly different from Lean and Agile, we can be assured that Design Thinking is definitely not new wine in an old bottle.

Sriram Sundaresan

Sriram Sundaresan

Sriram is a biotechnologist-turned content writer who writes about emerging trends in software engineering. When he’s not writing, he’s researching history, or learning to cook up tasty treats. He is passionate about cinema with his favorite director being Quentin Tarantino. He loves to keep fit by playing football in his spare time.
Sriram Sundaresan