The design studio approach

The bespoke design process consists of nine distinct but related steps. Participants typically address these steps in sequence. However, there is often an iterative “back and forth” refinement between the steps. These phases produce an understanding of the current system along with an understanding of the system purpose and requirements, theories and concepts, inspiring examples, the unique context of the organization, desired design characteristics, and how the process fits within the larger system. In addition, the current process is evaluated and areas for improvement identified.

1. System Purpose

Designer William McDonough proposes, “design is the first signal of human intention.” Consequently, the first step in design is to define the intent or purpose of the particular system being designed. During this first step the participants develop a clear understanding of the purpose(s) for the system; identify the key features, functions and components of the system and the associated requirements; and determine the nature of the system.

2. Nature of the System

Systems and processes differ in many ways but the “nature” of the process will guide many design decisions. Is the system composes of physical processes (manufacturing, transportation, etc.); knowledge or information processes (loan processing, insurance claims, etc.); or creative processes (strategy development, product development, etc.)? Many systems are composed of combinations of two or sometimes all three types of processes – physical, knowledge, and creative.

3. Theories and Concepts

Understand the key theories and concepts that inform this process. What do we already know about this type of system? Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton in their book Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management make the point that practitioner’s actions and practices are often not based on the latest scientific theory and are often practices that we already know do not work. The following three activities are designed to make sure the new design is informed by the latest research and thinking and avoids applying concepts and characteristics in ways or situations we know do not work. Participants explore leading theories and empirical evidence related to the application of these ideas and theories to various situations.

4. Inspiring Examples

World class examples bring the theories and concepts “alive.” Participants review and explore how high performing organizations have applied the concepts to their particular organizations. This review of example designs help clarify the concepts and applications and inspire the design team’s creative thinking. These examples are used at two different points in the design process. First, high level conceptual design examples are used during the initial discovery and conceptual design processes. Second, detailed examples are used during the detailed design phase to provide tangible options and ideas.

5. Unique Context

The design of any custom management system is dependent on the specific context of the unique organization. Using the organizational profile developed during the first workshop “Enterprise System,” participants identify the key factors that will influence the design of a custom system to fit the unique needs of the organization. For example, the appropriate strategic management system for the local “Mom and Pop” grocery store is likely to be a bit different from the appropriate system for a multi-national Fortune 500 company with operations in over 40 countries. In order to design a system to fit the unique characteristics of the organization you first have to identify the key organizational factors that impact the design of the particular system.

6. Design Principles

Design principles are the desired characteristics of the new system. They are cross-cutting and are used to inform the design. Participants begin with eleven established high performance principles including: visionary leadership; customer-driven excellence; organizational and personal learning; valuing workforce members and partners; agility; focus on the future; managing for innovation; management by fact; social responsibility; focus on results and creating value; and systems perspective. Embedded in these eleven principles are key characteristics related to creating sustainability value, including focusing on the future and a systems perspective. Participants then identify any additional characteristics or design principles to consider during the diagnosis and design phases.

7. System Integration

Understand how this system or process fits within the larger organization system. Most management systems are part of a larger system of management systems that combine to manage the overall enterprise. For example, a strategy system interacts with several other systems including: the enterprise scorecard, governance system, human resource systems, and so forth. A system perspective of the larger enterprise management system helps design management systems that are congruent, aligned, and integrated. The systems perspective allows organizations to look beyond the immediate goal or desired outcome of a particular system and identify key leverage points in the overall system to achieve their objectives and purposes.

8. Current System Diagnosis

Dr. W. Edwards Deming proposed, “if you can’t describe what you’re doing as a process, then you don’t know what you’re doing.” It is very difficult to diagnose an existing system until the details and design of the system are made explicit. Participants describe the key characteristics of the existing system using two methods – a visual flowchart or concept diagram and a table detailing the specifics of the individual components in the diagram.

Once the discovery phase is complete the participants are ready to diagnose the existing system. Diagnosis consists of thee related activities: identify of the “technical” strengths and opportunities for improvement, determine the maturity levels on four dimensions (approach, deployment, learning, and integration), and identify the user and stakeholder perceptions of the usability and effectiveness of the current system.

9. Design, Develop and Transform

Using the information and concepts from the discovery and diagnosis phases, participants imagine the ideal system and develop a doable design.

Ideal Conceptual Design

During this first step participants stretch their thinking to develop a vision of how the organization could be in an ideal world. In this case, an ideal world is defined as one with unlimited resources and technology as well as the desired ideal culture. Experience suggests that if the participants first develop an ideal design and then a doable design, they will end up with a better (more mature) design than if they go directly to the doable design. When attempting to redesign a system or process, participants are often “prisoners” of their previous experiences and learning. Participants that attempt to go directly from the current design to the desirable but “doable” design fall well short of what is actually possible.

Doable Conceptual Design

Once the participants have developed the ideal design, it is time to identify the constraints to achieving that design. Participants review the ideal design and identify the challenges or obstacles to developing and deploying the ideal design. Once the obstacles and challenges are identified the participants use creativity exercises and techniques to develop solutions to overcome the constraints. If creative solutions are not identified for a particular constraint, the participants refine the ideal design to create a doable design.

Development and Deployment Plan

The design studio workshop ends with a conceptual doable design. After the workshop the system still has to be fully designed (detailed), developed (tested and refined), and deployed (implemented). Participants develop a plan to further develop the system detailed design, test the design and deploy the design to the appropriate organization areas. In addition, a system “owner” is identified to lead the development and deployment phases.

Develop and Deploy

The system owner is responsible for leading the development and deployment of the new system including: developing a detailed design, prototyping (testing and refinement), deploying the design, and continuous reflection and refinement. These phases are led by the system owner and supported by Institute consultants.


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