How Ford Drives Business Agility With Design Thinking

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Digital transformation has been a hot topic across the C-suite during the past several months as companies look to improve efficiencies.  Yet, any specific digital transformation is only one aspect of what’s required to thrive. Successful companies prosper by building adaptive businesses. Criteria, such as agility, are vital for growing and maintaining any business. But what does agility mean and how do you cultivate it within an organization?  These are questions that keep business leaders up at night. 

To understand how various established organizations are developing adaptive businesses, I interviewed Sandy Fershee, Lab Director of D-Ford Detroit, for the Ford Motor Company. Ford is in the midst of the most significant change the transportation industry has ever seen. Ford must respond to shifts in commuting and travel behavior as well as the need to develop intelligent, intuitive in-vehicle services. It also must deliver on the promise of self-driving cars at a rate that matches or beats its competitors. Additionally, Ford must create physical product designs that inspire consumers and fit its target market’s ethos. 

D-Ford is a human-centered design (HCD) lab that works within Ford to champion the user’s voice, including the company’s customers, employees, and business partners.  It uses human-centered research to uncover insights that contribute to all phases of the design process. Through these insights, it seeks to discover hidden opportunities.  HCD is also known as design thinking. 

For those that aren’t familiar with the term design thinking, the Interaction Design Foundation defined it in the following way:

“Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It’s beneficial in tackling complex problems that are ill-defined or unknown, by understanding the human needs involved, by re-framing the problem in human-centric ways, by creating many ideas in brainstorming sessions, and by adopting a hands-on approach in prototyping and testing. The five stages of Design Thinking, according to Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school), are as follows: Empathize, Define (the problem), Ideate, Prototype, and Test.”

Why focus on HCD? 

Many organizations lack the toolkits and processes to enable business agility. While the term sounds like it focuses on aesthetics, design thinking can resolve many problems. D-Ford wants to help groups across Ford use design thinking principals to solve critical challenges. To do this, Ford has organized five D-Ford labs around the world — Detroit, London, Melbourne, Palo Alto and Shanghai. These labs aim to infuse four problem-solving mindsets into the overall Ford culture, including being curious, optimistic, empathetic and collaborative.  

The Human-Centered Design Process At D-Ford

 According to Fershee, D-Ford’s global priorities will focus on three main areas:

1. Help teams across Ford in building empathy for customers of today and tomorrow.

2. Determine opportunities and inform the development of winning strategies using human-centered design methodologies.

3. Build confidence and optionality in business decisions through early and rapid trial and error.

MediumAnnouncing ‘D-Ford’: Creating Tomorrow, Starting with People

But D-Ford isn’t an island. It helps the company create business agility by teaching the overall organization to experiment with different tools and methods.  A crucial part of D-Ford’s mission is to help everyone at Ford learn and adopt new tools to improve how the company gets things accomplished.

It partners with various disciplines within the organization (such as marketing, engineering, and human resources) to support understanding user needs and test assumptions.  Ford talked about making the tenets of design thinking available to everyone through educational programs. 

Progress requires companies to move from theoretical learning to hands-on application where employees incorporate HCD into any type of challenge that the business might have. D-Ford works with groups within the organization to tests concepts, create prototypes and iterate designs based on user feedback. 

If D-Ford is successful, HCD principles will improve Ford’s agility and its overall ability to become an adaptive enterprise.   

 

Will it work?

Ford Motor Company is over a century old. It’s not easy to create an agile culture. However, there are significant signs that the move to HCD has done just this. For example, Fershee shared how the company was able to rapidly re-task people and resources to support the demand for Personal Protective Equipment during the pandemic. Within a 72-hour timeframe, Ford went from idea to execution on creating face shields for healthcare workers. The 72 hours included designing, testing and developing an approved face shield prototype with guidance from hospital workers. It also included lining up suppliers and selecting available materials from those suppliers that could be used for the mass production of PPE gear. 

Putting the human in Human-Centered Design

In the days of mobile application design, Lopez Research described how companies should perform “A Day in the Life” studies of your customers and employees. A Day In The Life is a type of ethnographic research where the researcher follows and observes a user through a typical day, week, or month. This activity’s objective is for the researcher to understand the routine and typical activities of a user that the user performs by mere habit and that the user would perform subconsciously. Fershee described how this type of HCD technique helps Ford create better products through combine tools such as customer diaries with field research. The fruits of this labor are readily apparent in the latest release of the Ford F150 truck. 

Ford spent thousands of hours with potential customers who are passionate about using a tool, such as a truck, in their lives. Ford took the time to observe usage behavior because it uncovers hidden insight and unconscious behavioral patterns that fail to surface in interviews.   

Through HCD field research, FORD discovered that truck owners frequently sleep in their vehicles, often travel with generators and other electrical appliances, and use the truck’s interior as an office. These discoveries led the automaker to develop new lie-flat seats, add outlets with power on board in the flatbed, and places for clamps on the tailgate. To create more flexibility in how a person can use the truck’s interior cab, Ford included a way to convert the gear shift into a flat surface where the owner can place their laptop, eat lunch, or roll out design plans. 

To increase the effectiveness of field research, a company should create a cross-functional research team. (Remember these studies can also be used to discover opportunities to improve employee application and process experiences.) Ford shared how a cross-functional team helps every group (design, manufacturing, marketing, etc.) within the production process to understand requirements and share insights on what it will take to deliver the right value at the right cost.

Yet, even field research has to be agile. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t easy for Ford to perform the same type of in field research. To fill some of the gaps, it’s using research tools such as online diaries where individuals can share comments with photos and videos. Listening happens in many formats. Fershee shared how it’s not just about showing people a prototype or being in the field. It’s essential to listen to how individuals talk about an idea in relation to their lives. 

Five tips for creating business agility

There are several essential tips and takeaways from my discussion with Fershee that every business owner should consider.  

  1. Look for ways to repurpose existing assets in new ways. For both innovation and enhancing operations, organizations don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Look for ways to build upon current thinking within the market. For example, open-source projects can provide the foundation for many types of projects. Ford leveraged open-source designs as a foundation for the PPE facial shield prototype instead of starting from scratch. This strategy helps companies to get products to market faster and focus their development resources on building the areas that create new business value. 
  2. HCD isn’t limited to creating customer-facing products and services. Ford used these principles to reimagine parental leave and generate return to work procedures that would improve employee safety and comfort while we live with Covid19 pandemic. Ford also wanted to create a culture where sharing insights becomes part of the DNA. For example, after it designed a return to work playbook, the company posted it to help others leverage its insights.  This effort contributes back to the concept of open sourcing ideas for broader community use. 
  3. Look outside your company and industry for inspiration. Fershee also shared how D-Ford also reviewed how other companies were practicing, incorporating, and scaling design thinking. Regardless of the industry, every organization can learn from best-in-class strategies.
  4. Use HCD to change organizational thinking. Businesses are already restructuring their processes to navigate a post-pandemic world. It’s an opportunity to use HCD to rethink how the organization should operate. HCD requires companies to define a question,  perform research and use the gathered insight to create and prototype small projects. Agile design is often applied to IT but not necessarily applied to how the organization operates. HCD frees you to consider change as a set of smaller goals that can lead to a broader transformation.
  5. Build-in reflection moments. Even if you’ve been on a specific journey for some time, your company may need to pivot. Instead of viewing this as a failure, it’s an opportunity to design the project in a new way. It’s essential to build in reflection moments to enable adaptation based on how the organization or the market has evolved.

HCD helps companies create better solutions and decisions. It promotes experimentation, questioning of the status quo, and rapid iteration. In short, it’s a great way to approach creating a culture of agility. Finally, Fershee shared a piece of advice that we can all benefit from when she said, “It’s good to start small and show impact every step of the way. My mantra is, “Always be progressing.”

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