Design Thinking, A Long Journey to Japan

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.”  - Albert Einstein

As customer tastes diversify, businesses are using design thinking more and more to meet demand. GLOBIS is offering a course on Design Thinking as well. What follows is the first installment in our series on this important topic.  

Why Design Thinking?

Design thinking can be best defined by its holistic and future-looking approach that focuses on user experience. The system is comprised of several interactive cycles of unconstrained experimentation meant to widen the net of ideas by drawing members from a great variety of disciplines and functions.

IDEO CEO Tim Brown summarizes design thinking as:

“A human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs and desires of people, the possibilities of technology and the requirements of business success.”

The design thinking concept was widely discussed in Japan in the early 2000’s but failed to gain a considerable following. The concept has become the focal point of heated debate in academia and business management circles again, but it is still to be seen if and when Japanese corporations will employ the practice as a strategy to gain a competitive advantage in their respective market.

In this article, I would like to explore the roots to Design Thinking, how it gained popularity in North America and Europe, and lastly, why acceptance in Japan has been slow.

Roots – Creativity and Mass Manufacturing

To find the roots of design thinking, one needs to go to Europe, back to the era of the industrial revolution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was then that fears about “the soullessness of manufacturing and its products” and “art’s loss of purpose” gave rise to the Arts and Crafts and Bauhaus movements. These movements were an attempt to reunite “creativity and manufacturing” which were disrupted by the industrial revolution, and to find a new purpose for arts in what was a modernizing society.

The Bauhaus (“house building”) Academy was established in Germany in 1919 and revolutionized education by integrating artistic and industrial design media into “research science.” There, practical education was enriched with free experimentation and intellectual pursuits in both artistic and scientific disciplines. As opposed to the practice of copying models in traditional academies, students were encouraged to experiment without any stated purpose and to do problem-solving based on their own creative perception. Freedom of expression was complemented with a focus on economic sensibility, simplicity and reproducibility – scalability.  

Wheel diagram illustrating the structure of teaching at Bauhaus, developed by the movement’s founder Walter Gropius (1922)

Due to political pressure, the Bauhaus Academy was forced to close its doors in 1933. Subsequently, faculty members dispersed across the globe with the three most influential members finding themselves teaching at universities in the United States, where they “refashioned the philosophy into one suited to the climate of a research university in a market-oriented culture.”

It wasn’t until 30 years thereafter that the first formal model for design thinking was developed by Nobel-prize laureate Herbert Simons’ book Sciences of the Artificial.

Design Thinking Process and Successes

Even though the concept has been around for a while, the term “design thinking” wasn’t coined until the 1990’s by the founders of IDEO in Palo Alto, US.

At the time, IDEO’s founders were looking to develop a method that would incorporate user needs and desires from the very early stages of IDEO’s innovation process. By incorporating these features in the early stages of the creative process, the acceptance and roll-out of new innovations were improved significantly.

The company used a five-step method, or iterative loop, in the innovate process:

1. “Empathize” to understand customer needs
2. “Define” to reframe problem in a customer-centric manner
3. “Ideate” by brainstorming to open a wide range of possibilities
4. A hands-on adoption by “prototyping”
5. Test the prototype

The method proved to be very successful and gained a strong following after the publication of the article “Design Thinking” by Tim Brown in the Harvard Business Review (2008/06).

Since then, modern-day design thinking have been used by North American and European corporations, NGOs, government agencies and start-ups.

One example from business is the case of Siemens. The company opened the Industrial Design Thinking Center in Beijing, its largest market, with the aim to discover the hidden needs of their customers. Their specific goal was to understand and address what they describe as “wicked problems,” requiring complex social or cultural change. Using design thinking, they understood the customer much better than they could have with traditional research methods. They formulated a message that effectively overwrote the market's sensitivity to price, which is ever-present in their Chinese market. The message spoke to their customers in a way that shifted their thinking from being price-sensitive to having an appreciation of the product value instead. As a result, Siemens entered a market that was previously dominated by Chinese competitors with a new product and moved customers from a low-price point to a moderately high price range, on their own accord.

Why not Japan?

There has been a low recognition and appreciation for design thinking in Japan. What could be the reason?

Even with several early warning signals in the early 2000’s, many businesses in Japan failed to anticipate the looming disruption stemming from the digital revolution, globalization, and drastic changes in demographics occurring all at once. Therefore, most felt no sense of emergency to change; business went on with “business as usual.”

Some also point to a gap in communication styles between Japan and Europe-North America. The consultative, high-intensity approach of design thinking involves the customer in co-creation. In this process, a rough draft is presented based on a close observation of the customer and it is then discussed jointly with all interested parties. Customer feedback is taken into account and the draft is adjusted time and time again, until a scalable prototype takes shape.  This interactive discussion is not aligned with the Japanese concept of customer service which is about providing a perfect offering.

Comments received after a presentation, tend to be taken as a sign of failure: a lack of penetration into the customer’s thoughts, feelings and needs rather than a suggestion for improvement.

As for brainstorming, a strong sense of group belonging will limit the range of ideas as input from outliers tend to be rare. The discomfort that comes with diverging from the mainstream can also lead to a preference for incremental improvements and so-called “kaizen,” as opposed to radically new approaches, i.e. “innovations.”

What’s Next?

As marketplaces become ever more complex, the acceptable time a company has to bring a product to market drops significantly. Customer behavior and needs are evolving at an increasing speed, and innovations become the new norm - the new representation of value.

Recently we’ve witnessed designers moving from researching and developing products to developing processes, services, communications, and collaboration platforms. Perhaps it’s time for others to take notice, and possibly follow suit?

It’s not a secret that this is a time of tumultuous uncertainty, and businesses worldwide (not just in Japan) have now come to share a sense of urgency to improve business processes.

It is my opinion that reconnecting with the customer through a new line of storytelling will be critical. Design thinking – a philosophy, more than a mere process – may hold one of the keys…

Cover photo by sheeler