Is Design Thinking the New TQM? - IEDP
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Is Design Thinking the New TQM?

The critical importance of innovation as well as 'quality' to corporate sustainability


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The reason we hear little about Total Quality Management today is that ‘quality’ has become a core management focus, and it is hard to envisage a pre-TQM business world. According to new research ‘design thinking’ is set to follow the same trajectory as TQM, and become an indispensable organizational discipline.

Professor Jeanne Liedtka, and colleagues Daisy Azer and Randy Salzman at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, say that design thinking will become “integrated into the strategic fabric of organizations.” And, as with TQM, the term may well disappear – “It will just be business as usual.”

The current buzz around design thinking is due to recognition of the critical importance of innovation in our fast changing world, and a fundamental shift away from innovation being seen as the province of experts and R&D departments to being part of the corporate culture; a culture that encourages broad input and participation and applies innovation to operations, practices and business models; a culture where all ideas are welcome however crazy, and fear of failure – which can stifle innovation – is eliminated.

This shift in how organizations view innovation has significant parallels to the quality paradigm shift. Design thinking, is fulfilling a similar role to the one played by TQM in quality, “providing a common language and methodology that facilitates the development of an organizational capability by operationalizing the new mindsets and behaviors in a way that can be standardized and scaled.” says Liedtka and her colleagues.

The impact of TQM was significant in virtually every sizeable organization around the world, and its influence now underlies Six Sigma and Lean. Yet ‘back in the day’ Quality Assurance was a specialism detached from organizational strategy and considered the domain of experts. The TQM movement brought a sea-change. Quality became a strategic capability and the concern of all employees.

Similarly innovation was previously seen as the province of experts and design as a gloss added during the production process. Paralleling the rise of quality, innovation is becoming viewed as a core strategic capability, and design thinking as a common language providing a key problem-solving methodology.

As with TQM in its early days, there are detractors: Is design thinking anything new? Is it a coherent idea or just a common sense imperative? Addressing these concerns, the authors consider whether the concept converges on a commonly accepted set of assumptions, and if it is sufficiently different to existing practices, and conclude that it meets both validity tests.

As with TQM, there is a coherent set of shared assumptions underlying design thinking:

  • The value of supplementing traditional analysis based on historic data with experimentation;
  • The need to treat the problem, as well as its solution, as a hypothesis and be possibility-driven in the pursuit of answers;
  • Minimizing innovation risk with exploratory process aimed at uncovering users’ needs and wants, using ethnographic methods that go deep and then prototyping.

The researchers go on to consider the evolution of innovation. They look first at the people dimension and the question of who is invited to innovate if innovation is no longer the domain of experts, at the value of cross-functional teams where diverse voices are heard, and at the role for outside stakeholders as trusted partners and co-creators of value.  Secondly the researchers look at the process dimension and how the ‘innovation conversation’ begins to shift both how problems and opportunities are defined and expectations for the kinds of answers that emerge. Thirdly they consider the organizational context, with a focus on cultural comfort with ambiguity, the integration with strategy, and the attitude towards measurement.

The final part of the research looks at how organizations can navigate the transition to embracing innovation, and here again the TQM story provides valuable insights. Some of the obstacles that slowed the progress of TQM are characteristic of the current state of design thinking. There was confusion about what TQM truly entailed and why it mattered. The meaning of design thinking can be similarly confusing: Why is it ‘thinking’ if it emphasizes feeling and action? and surely ‘design’ is about aesthetics and star innovators like Steve Jobs?

TQM was hampered by the executives’ belief that quality equated to higher costs and was the responsibility of the production line; design thinking now challenges these beliefs:

  • Belief in the power of analytic methods and data to predict;
  • Belief that good managers produce successful performance, not failure;
  • Belief in efficiency – while design thinking can entail inefficiency in the pursuit of innovation.

The researchers believe, as with TQM, design thinking will in time benefit from the development of a more detailed methodology, improved training and broader incorporation into strategic decision-making processes. They point out that while trained designers may be comfortable with ambiguity and do not need a structured process; risk-averse managers, fearful of failure and raised in large bureaucratic organizations, do.

While design thinking can be transformative if senior leaders offer support, ambiguity and failure are tolerated, and the challenges of problem definition are sensitively understood; the authors also found that many design champions are not waiting for senior leadership to give permission: “One of the great aspects of design thinking is its inherently subversive nature, and that nature is much in evidence in our research.”

Further Information

Executive Education University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

Darden Executive Education has announced the launch of a new online program, a Specialization in Design Thinking and Innovation, which will begin in September 2015

For over half a century, Darden Executive Education has served as a critical resource for businesses around the world, conveying the relevant strategies and specific business skills needed to formulate decisions, set action plans and apply sustainable options.

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