What is design thinking and why should you care?

July 24, 2019 James Hayward

Design thinking may seem like an abstract concept with little relevance to supply chain professionals. But in our rapidly changing world that requires businesses to be nimble and adaptive, design thinking must be at the core of how you craft your supply chain and the systems that support it. 


Let’s take a closer look at design thinking and how you can apply it to your supply chain.


Classical design v design thinking


Most of us have a classical understanding of what design means. It goes a little something like this:

  1. You have a complex problem. 
  2. You find a solution that you know will solve it.
  3. You implement this solution with as elegantly as possible.

It’s the process of devising a system, component, or process to meet desired needs. It’s what keeps our buildings standing, ensures our infrastructure works, and keeps our cars on the road. And it can be beautiful — just look at some of the architecture in your nearest city.


But this form of design doesn’t allow much room for innovation. You’re using a known solution to fix a problem. If you want to innovate, you must think differently and that’s where design thinking comes in. It looks like this:

  1. You have a complex problem. 
  2. You analyze the context and seek the core human issues behind the problem.
  3. You uncover new potential outcomes from this analysis.
  4. You build human-centric solutions to create better outcomes.
  5. You test and evaluate these solutions. 
  6. You go back to step one.

 Unlike classical design, the goal of design thinking isn’t just to fix a problem with a solution. It’s about looking at a problem differently and considering the problem from a human perspective. When you do that you start focusing on outcomes that improve the world and the lives we lead.  

Urban transportation 

To put theory into reality, let’s look at a pertinent example. In 2001, Dean Kamen launched the Segway. Many thought it would transform urban transportation forever. It didn’t. Between 2002 and 2018 Segway only sold around 100,000 units. 


So what happened? The Segway is a true feat of engineering, for sure. But they’re expensive, heavy and clunky to use. And that all adds up to commercial failure because they don't meet the needs of humans. On the other hand, there’s the raging success of the e-scooter. E-scooters are far less technically impressive than the Segway. But they’re far more commercially successful, with around 1 million sold in 2018 alone. 


The reason, yes you guessed it, they better meet the needs of the end-user. They’re a cheap, lightweight and practical alternative to cars.


Design thinking in the supply chain  


Enterprises rarely build systems and processes using design thinking. Instead, they follow the classical form of design that seeks a pre-existing solution to a problem. 


That’s why many accounts payable teams see OCR and document scanning as the optimum way to digitize their accounts payable process. Yes, these tools remove some paper and automate your process to a degree, but do they solve the wider issues your team has? And will they take your accounts payable team to the next level? Probably not. 


If you really want to transform your department and it’s status within the organization, you must think differently. You should apply design thinking methodology to find innovative solutions that deliver new outcomes, not just solve problems.


So ask why your team is receiving so many paper invoices. And keep asking why until you find the root of the issue and the real problem you need to solve. Then you have the opportunity to innovate and drive transformational change in your organization.


That’s why design thinking is so important. It’s what will enable your business to be adaptive; and in this world, adaptive is the only way forward.


What this talk David Fellah, Chairman and Co-founder of the Strategic Design Group gave at our recent Innovation Summit to learn more about design thinking. 

Get more insights from our Innovation Summit at our Tradeshift Live content stream. 

About the Author

James Hayward

James is a Senior Content Marketing Manager at Tradeshift, focused on crafting compelling stories that provide supply chain professionals with unique insights and actionable advice on how to take their organization to the next level. A journalist by trade, James was previously the Global Editor at Treasury Today magazine.

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