Design Thinking, Continuous Improvement, and Process

In his book The Design of Business, Roger Martin describes how companies explore and then exploit new knowledge.  It’s a terrific read on the subject of design thinking and I recommend it highly.  Martin describes how new knowledge progresses through a funnel.  It moves through phases from discovery (the exploration of mysteries) to heuristic (the development of models or principles) to algorithm (the stage at which it is efficiently scaled and commercialized). 

Everyone associated with new product development (NPD) has heard of a “funnel” and this sounded a lot like NPD in the consumer products world: concept – development – commercialization.  But it also sounded like what agencies go through to develop new advertising: explore the mysteries of consumers, develop concepts, then commercialize the ad.  And by the way, it sounded like what marketing uses to improve in-store merchandising.  It sounded like a lot of “processes” in companies that require exploring some mystery, coming up with an idea and moving that idea to fruition.

Some personal conclusions:

  • Process improvement and things like 6 sigma work on the algorithm end of the knowledge funnel where efficiency counts
  • Frameworks work on the discovery end of the knowledge funnel where effectiveness counts
  • The combination of the two, frameworks and process, need to be used judiciously in the heuristic middle

The common obstacle for various types of continuous improvement approaches in companies (e.g., lean six sigma and the like) is universal adoption.  Departments like Operations will get on board quickly because they see the value.  They should.  They’re charged with running algorithms.  But departments like Marketing and others that routinely deal with the other end of the knowledge funnel, are laggards in adoption.  And it’s understandable because techniques for improving algorithms don’t apply to the discovery and heuristic ends of the knowledge funnel.

Design thinkers that want to change the way their business works so they get better results need to select the approach that fits the proper stage in the knowledge funnel.  Otherwise, they will be disappointed when adoption stagnates.  If you don’t agree, read the book and then let’s talk.