Design Thinking: A Valuable Addition to Your Continuous Improvement and Innovation Toolkit

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs

If you’ve been around the Air Force Reserve for any amount of time, you probably know that the Reserve has used tools like Continuous Process Improvement (CPI), which utilized Lean and Six Sigma methodologies, for years to try and improve efficiency and quality in most of its processes.

What most members of the Air Force Reserve team may not know is that there are a host of other tools within the Continuous Improvement and Innovation (CI2) toolkit readily available that can help them improve a process, address a problem or promote innovation in their workplace.

Design Thinking is one such tool.

According to the Harvard Business School, Design Thinking is a mindset and approach to problem-solving and innovation anchored around human-centered design. It differs from other innovation and ideation processes, like Lean and Six Sigma, in that it’s solution-based and user-centric rather than problem-based. This means it focuses on fast, iterative tests to solve the problem instead of the problem itself.

An example Harvard provides is that if a team is struggling with transitioning to remote work, the Design Thinking methodology encourages them to consider how to increase employee engagement rather than to focus on the problem – decreasing productivity.

“In my assessment, Design Thinking asks the question, ‘What could be?’ while Lean and Six Sigma methodologies ask the question, ‘What is already here that could be better?’” said Ken Harris, the CI2 process manager with the Reserve’s 932nd Airlift Wing at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. Harris recently helped spearhead the Reserve’s first Design Thinking bootcamp to address the Reserve’s problem of not converting enough CI2 green belt-trained Airmen to green belt-certified Airmen in processes for Lean and Six Sigma.

Harris explained that to be considered trained in CI2 processes for Lean and Six Sigma, a person has to complete 40 hours of computer-based training and pass a knowledge check test. To be certified, the person has to complete a capstone project where he or she leads a group through the eight-step problem-solving process, generating successful countermeasures and ensuring performance is improved. This can be a lengthy process that can take months or years for a traditional Reservist.

Harris and Thomas Jones from the Air Force Reserve’s Transformation and Innovation Office (AFRC/A9) worked with the National Security Innovation Network to set up and run the bootcamp. NSIN is the Defense Department’s problem-solving network that is committed to building a more agile and adaptive DoD to meet the unpredictable threats of the future.

“In these times of growing uncertainty, the strategies that have served us for nearly 100 years have become insufficient and unsustainable,” NSIN says on its website. “NSIN and its programs serve to develop a new alliance between defense, academia and venture communities whose collaboration is imperative in the service of our national security.”

NSIN program manager Kelly Schulte worked with Harris and Jones to set up the Reserve’s first Design Thinking bootcamp. He brought in Nic Meliones, chief executive officer of Navi, and the Navi team to facilitate the event. Navi is a private contractor that helps people learn innovation skills, solve mission-critical problems and bring new ideas to life.

“Design Thinking is user-centered problem solving,” Meliones said. “The biggest risk in innovation is building something that no one needs – it does not solve a painful enough problem. Design Thinking addresses this risk head-on by emphasizing talking to users and running fast, iterative tests to learn where you are on the right track and where you need to adjust.”

Meliones said the core elements to a Design Thinking bootcamp are: framing the hypothesis, talking to users, framing the solution, delivering first value and generating buy-in. In a bootcamp, participants learn core Design Thinking principles, investigate a mission-critical challenge statement, identify a slice of the challenge statement to focus on, craft a solution and test it, and create a pitch and generate buy-in from senior leaders during out-briefs.

Harris said the Design Thinking bootcamp he helped set up was an eye-opening experience, and he can definitely see how Design Thinking can be an invaluable tool in meeting the AFRC commander’s strategic priority of Transforming for the Future and associated line of effort, Fostering Continuous Improvement and Innovation across the Enterprise.

“Design Thinking trains Airmen to use human-centered methods to evaluate and analyze problems,” he said. “It also teaches them how to take those solutions and communicate and pitch effectively and persuasively.” Harris said Airmen who learn and practice Design Thinking generally become better listeners who are more observant, more empathetic, more creative, more persuasive and stronger critical thinkers.

The bootcamp was divided into teams and generated six separate first-value pitches to brief to AFRC leadership. Harris is currently on a team of members throughout AFRC who participated in the NSIN bootcamp and have volunteered to work on evaluating constraints of the proposed countermeasures that were selected for pursuit, and then draft proposed execution plans for AFRC leadership to consider implementing.

“That work has really kicked into gear this spring and we expect it to produce fruit this summer,” he said.

Harris said another great thing about the NSIN bootcamps is that they provide Airmen with a special experience identifier that looks great on their resume.

“A9 (AFRC’s Directorate of Analyses, Lessons Learned, and Continuous Improvement and Innovation) really deserves a lot of credit for their role in this first bootcamp,” Harris said. “From introduction to NSIN to launch took less than 30 days. Additionally, along with all the work that went into coordinating and determining the scope of the event, the team at A9 worked the logistics required to enable any Airmen participating to qualify for the 91D (Design Thinking) special experience identifier.”

Harris went on to say that NSIN provides its Design Thinking bootcamp program for free to DoD entities.

“That’s what is so amazing about this process,” Harris said. “Whether you are a group, or a squadron or a wing, if you have a problem you need help with, NSIN will bring in the experts and run the bootcamp to see if Design Thinking can help you come up with the best solution.”

“All you need is a sponsor, at least 15 people and a problem.” Schulte said. “NSIN provides the Design Thinking experts free of charge. On the back end, we ask that you have at least an O5 (lieutenant colonel) or civilian equivalent to receive the final out-brief – someone who can make a decision on the proposed solutions.”

“Any command or Airmen interested in participating in a bootcamp to solve unit challenges and build problem-solving proficiencies should not delay reaching out to NSIN to set something up,” Harris said. “Current success of the program has them booking six to nine months out.”

Harris said it is imperative that the Air Force Reserve and other DoD organizations use tools like Design Thinking to improve the way they operate.

“The wars of the future are not going to be won by the biggest bombs, but by the most creative minds,” he said. “Our adversaries don’t follow the rules of war the U.S. has ordained, and that for too long our service members have been schooled in. If we don’t adjust the way we approach problems, big and small, we risk losing.”

If you would like to learn more about Design Thinking, check out the NSIN website.