Written by 6:23 pm Change Management, Demand

My Failure In Using Design Thinking To Drive Supply Chain Innovation

Supply chain management is a team sport. Just as there are many flavors of sports teams, there are many types of supply chains. Success depends on a team pulling together against a common goal. The organization cannot naturally collaborate without alignment.

Team play requires clear rule-definition, timekeepers, referees, and coaches. The game in each sport is different: a swim team has little similarity with rugby. In addition, there is little commonality between a basketball, soccer, football, and a track team.

The supply chain is also a team sport needing clear goals, rules, and coaches. For many companies, this is a gap. When a company attempts to automate processes without clarity, problems ensue. This post focuses on my failure to use design thinking to spark innovation with supply chain teams and my lessons learned. The root issue is the lack of a clear definition of supply chain excellence and the road rules by organizations.

So, you might say, “This sounds like a hard stance Lora. What were the gaps, and why were they not obvious to you in the beginning?” My reply is a tangled web of realizations, but let’s start with the definition and then explore the issues.

Lessons Learned From Design Thinking

I studied design thinking for four years before facilitating a design thinking workshop. My first training in 2012 was with Ideo. I then worked as a supporting actress with many consulting group efforts. When I attempted to facilitate design thinking workshops on my own in 2015, I was bullish on the concepts. Today, six years later, I reflect on the gaps of the methodology as it applies to supply chain innovation.

Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving. Design thinking has a human-centered core. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes.” Ideo

Over the last two years, I facilitated design thinking sessions with twenty-five organizations. I love the work of defining personas and starting solution development through the lens of human empathy. Facilitating a group invigorates me. So, you might ask, “Why do I not feel that design thinking approaches work in the development of supply chain innovation roadmaps?” As I unravel my tangled web of disconnects, here are my learnings:

Empathy for Whom? Design thinking starts with the heart for the end-user, and the work attempts to define a better solution. However, a problem arises when you try to design to meet the needs of a collection of individuals not aligned as a team. Remember the need for goal clarity, rules, and clear metrics in my opening paragraph? In the design thinking workshops for multiple manufacturers, these were conspicuously absent. In fact, in many of my workshops, it was the first time that a cross-functional group of supply chain employees met in the same room. Since most supply chain career progression happens within functional silos, groups struggle to understand roles outside their functions and how these positions need to work together. In the absence of a clear definition of supply chain excellence, it is hard for the workgroups to move forward. Success requires a good coach that gives the group permission to fail and clarity on success. Design thinking within the supply chain hinges on the leader’s ability to define the rules of the game and the state of play. My learning? Empathy must start with how the team needs to work to win at the moment of truth, not with the individual.

Blinded by Today’s Technologies. My goal is to help organizations embrace the Art of the Possible and springboard their thinking into next-generation designs. In my work, I find that it is hard to move past the current state. Let me explain why. Process definitional thinking and technology are tightly woven. For example, if a company is attempting to improve demand insights through innovative technology approaches, it is hard for the group to think past their current forecasting definition. Supply chain teams operate in boxes defined by their functions and their knowledge of current technology. Getting out of these boxes is threatening. Sometimes, the employees fear job failure if they break free of the bars that bind, but usually, the barrier is intimidation. A leap from the known to the unknown is just too uncomfortable. Insight? The group needs to move through a series of creative activities that are untethered to technologies to move forward. This design allows the individual to focus on business outcomes versus technology process purity.

Executive Understanding of Outcomes. It is hard to get business leaders with a cursory knowledge of supply chain management to learn, unlearn, and rethink the potential. This effort requires a good coach. (As shown in Figure 1, the supply chain’s executive understanding is a significant roadblock to innovation and effective coaching. I have asked this question in fifteen surveys over the last decade, and the organizational performance and the use of data always rank in the top five.) With the shifts in reporting structures for the IT leader to report to the CFO, the issue grew. What to do? Use simulation and what-if analysis to continually educate the executive team. Use the power of visualization to help the organization understand the trade-offs of make, source, and deliver and the constraints. Through the building of playbooks in S&OP help the organization to better align. When doing persona analysis in design thinking, focus on how the personas need to work together as a team in the execution of playbooks. Use this analysis as an educational opportunity to help the executive team better understand what is needed to align the functions within the organization. Push for clarity of supply chain excellence against the strategy. Tie the strategy to a balanced scorecard. In the work with the design-thinking team focus on how the team can work together to deliver these outcomes.

Figure 1. Top Five Elements of Business Pain for Respondents in Sales & Operations Planning

So What Now?

As companies start the work–using design thinking to define the Art of the Possible–begin with the definition of team play. Focus on how the group should work and clarify the outcomes. Paint a collective vision of the future state. Use coaching techniques to help employees break the bars that bind them to functional paradigms reinforced by today’s technology definitions.

Using empathy, coach leaders to focus first on the team’s definition and desired outcomes using heart. Then design the individual roles within this context. If you start with the position early in an organization that is not aligned or clear on goals and outcomes, anticipate problems and getting stuck in the mud.

Preparing for the Supply Chain Insights Global Summit

We are taking the risk that everyone can get COVID shots/ tests to enable an in-person event in September. We will also have a virtual feed for those unable to travel. The goal of the conference is to Imagine the supply chain of the future. The conference is in Franklin, TN on September 7th-10th, 2021.

In preparation, I am handpicking the speakers and finishing up the Supply Chains to Admire analysis for 2021. The agenda will publish in April.

If you have a story you would like to share at the conference; please drop me an email at lora.cecere@supplychaininsights.com.
Please mark your calendars to join us to think differently and Imagine the Supply Chain of the Future.

In addition, we are heads down on research to share. Our current research project is understanding analytics. We would love to have your input on the study.