Milwaukee companies use design thinking to fuel growth

Some the Milwaukee area’s most robust and dynamic companies are using the principles of design thinking to propel their growth through innovation.

Milwaukee-based architectural firm Kahler Slater, which specializes in creating total experiences for companies with a cross-disciplined team of designers, approaches design thinking in five designated steps: Discover, dream, define, design and deliver.

The “5D” process, original to the firm, guides designers through user-centered observation, research of company clients, divergent thinking, and imagining and designing a vision for a client’s future along with steps needed to get there. Designers can then execute identified steps toward that vision by exploring, testing and re-evolving their designs until they get the right design.

Integrating the perspectives of a diverse group of participants is pivotal to the design thinking process, said Tony LaPorte, culture communications team leader at Kahler Slater.

“It helps you see the challenge from more perspectives than just your own,” LaPorte said.

Groups of participants typically include client representatives, who traverse the design thinking process with designers as ideas are generated and proposed.

“We take them through the process, explore the potential ideas together and ultimately solve (the problem) together,” LaPorte said.

Casting a wide net of ideas is just as critical to design thinking success.

While many other problem solving approaches in the workplace chart a very linear path, design thinking relies on divergent thinking to expand the ideas presented, both good and bad, LaPorte said.

At Kahler Slater, designers often create prototypes of proposed designs and solutions to add a more tangible element to the design thinking process and build a common understanding of design options.

They also take a tangible approach to empathizing with the users, customers and consumers of their clients’ products and services.

During one design project based in a Singapore hospital, Kahler Slater’s chief executive officer, Jim Rasche, assumed the role of a hospital patient so that he could gain firsthand perspective on the experiences of an actual patient undergoing treatment.

“It’s really the best way to understand the problem and make sure you’re solving the right problem,” LaPorte said.

Across town, Glendale-based Johnson Controls Inc. places innovation among its top five company values and has long employed holistic methods of design thinking to both spur innovation and bring it to realization.

The company’s emphasis on design thinking – which is known companywide as “innovation thinking” – embraces empathy, framing, ideating, creating and testing, or “EFICT.”

“It’s really about this human-centered approach, which starts with empathy,” said Michael Warsaw, vice president of global innovation and design for Johnson Controls.
Within Johnson Controls’ tailored approach to design thinking is a mission to innovate through people, projects, performance and place.

The company’s approach to innovating through people involves facilitated training and development programs taught in offices worldwide with a curriculum structured around how to think like an innovator and how to drive innovation.

Innovation through projects focuses on uniting key members of company divisions in the spirit of a startup to drive new opportunity through larger-scale projects.

Within performance-driven innovation, Johnson Controls measures its innovation health through a series of metrics that indicate how it is currently performing and how it can improve.

The company opened an innovation center in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward that defies many of the staples of corporate settings. Warsaw describes it as a loft, startup-like worksite arranged with open space instead of cubicles to bring people together and collaborate throughout the steps of “EFICT.”

“When you walk into the innovation center, it changes your state of mind in a way,” Warsaw said.

Innovation is an integral part of Johnson Controls’ business model, Warsaw said, and one that helps the company to attract industrial designers with the most creative of skillsets.
“That level of commitment to innovation will bring in the best people,” Warsaw said.

“Emotional benefits”
At Waukesha-based GE Healthcare, the process of design thinking has provided a portal to reintroduce emotion back into the health care experience.

“A lot of health care delivery is devoid of emotion,” said Bob Schwartz, general manager of global design and user experience at GE Healthcare. “What our team is focused on is delivering an experience that feels more like your ordinary life, not something foreign.”
With six global studios, including one in Waukesha, Schwartz’s design and user experience team covers all design-related disciplines for GE Healthcare. Along with design experts, the staff contains cognitive psychologists and social anthropologists who offer insight on human behavior and the human environment experience and open up an outlet of empathy.

Schwartz describes design thinking as part of a larger ecosystem driving innovation with an amalgamation of tools. At GE Healthcare, those tools form the “Menlo Innovation Ecosystem,” named for General Electric founder Thomas Edison, who developed many of his innovations in Menlo Park, N.J.

In orchestrating this ecosystem, GE Healthcare brings employees together to form “ensembles” rather than “hierarchical work teams” and perform theatrical improvisation that transforms silly ideas into innovative ones. Through this process, which fosters what GE Healthcare calls “group genius,” employees remember the creative tools of their childhood that enabled them to imagine without limits.

“Suddenly, they’re much more comfortable, everybody smiles, and the creativity and the imagination comes out because the fear is gone,” Schwartz said.

In one example of GE Healthcare’s design thinking process, which starts with the realization of an unfulfilled need, the company created a pediatric adventure series to ease the fear and anxiety of children undergoing diagnostic procedures, such as MRIs.
The series puts children inside a story and reframes their treatment experience so that they are able to relax and lay still in the scanner. With help from props, such as coloring books, patients are told they’re going on an undersea submarine adventure.

“They don’t move because they have a story in their head,” Schwartz said.

In a separate application of design process, GE Healthcare partnered with the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD) for a year-long initiative dubbed “The Compassion Project” that challenged design students to think about the problems within health care administered to breast cancer patients. Ideas of improvement were largely generated from interviews that students conducted with medical staff, women with breast cancer, and others who have a family member or friend with the disease.

One student design project titled “Able”, rethought the traditional hospital gown, converting it into a garment similar to everyday clothing that could be worn to and from treatments and hospital appointments.

Another innovation that emerged was an IV device enclosed in a small portable bag with an attached monitor for women receiving chemotherapy. In this way, patients could move freely without having to roll an IV poll throughout the hospital. The development intended to restore much of their independence and dignity, illustrating Schwartz’s broader mission in design thinking.

“We’re here to take GE Healthcare and its wonderful technology and connect it to the emotional benefits we want to deliver to patients, families (and) practitioners,” Schwartz said.

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