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Creative working methods

Design thinking puts you in unfamiliar territory

03/2016 - Lego, Post-it notes, whiteboards, bar stools, music. The DB Systel creative workshops are anything but a conventional working environment, and with its innovative approaches, design thinking wants to steer off the beaten track. In doing so, participants are encouraged to make mistakes.

Innovation arises from creativity. Yet sometimes it is not all that easy to discover one’s own creativity. This is where a structured procedure can help.
“Design thinking” is just such an innovative approach.

Design thinking is based on the working methods of designers, in which contradictions are an important source of inspiration. The design thinking approach is intended for the development of fast and beneficial ideas and approaches to solutions. One key principle here is learning from mistakes in good time.

A lot of tinkering, experimenting and exchanging goes on – all carried out in an innovative environment by employees from various departments. A design thinking workshop, therefore, looks nothing like a normal office with tidy desks.

“We have replaced the conventional seating with bar stools,” says Torsten Dubslaff, who supports the design thinking approach at DB Systel. Such simple measures can create a completely different working atmosphere. Standing up to work now generates a completely different dynamic to sitting down. “We very quickly noticed that conventional seating was stifling creativity,” he adds.

The participants in a workshop, for example, work standing at high tables, while music plays in the background. They use Post-it notes, Lego, wireframe or papier mâché to represent their ideas in prototypes. According to Dubslaff, one attraction of the workshop is working together with unfamiliar people to solve a problem. This in itself creates a special dynamic.

Workshops should involve a heterogeneous mix of people

 For anyone interested, DB Systel offers workshops based on the design thinking approach. In events lasting three and a half to four days – sometimes even ten days for bigger projects – employees from all parts of the Group can take part in problem solving exercises. For this purpose, DB Systel has collaborated with external partners to train about 15 coaches. “We are delighted when employees voluntarily sign up with us for a design thinking challenge,” says Stefan Opitz.

Each team comprises no more than six persons, and is supported by one team coach. A heterogeneous mix within the group is important. Employees should come from different parts of the company and every area of work, such as designers, developers, HR personnel, sales staff or product managers. They should represent different levels of the management hierarchy and want to tackle problems together, without any hierarchical divisions. It is not absolutely necessary for the participants to have any prior knowledge of the course content. Only in this way are new perspectives facilitated, off the beaten track.

It is essential that a customer or end user is present to act as an interview partner or a tester. At every stage, the focus is on the user’s viewpoint. This is because one of the principles of design thinking is to position the user centre stage. The solution to a problem must be found together with the users and in their interests. In some cases it also helps to use a “persona” that combines the characteristic features of a user.

Six stages of problem solving

Design thinking puts you in unfamiliar territory
DB Systel GmbH

There are six steps involved in developing a solution in design thinking. The first of these is the important process of understanding. Here the team must develop a common understanding of the task. The next stage is observation. Through interviews, studies and observation, the team members must assemble a body of knowledge as soon as possible, in order to quickly gain a good understanding of the problem situation.

When all the information has been collected, it can be structured and weighted. In order to define a point of view, the first hypotheses can then be derived. To illustrate the needs of the user more graphically, personas can be used, or the course of a fictitious working day can be traced.

In the idea-finding phase, it is a matter of developing as many approaches as possible in order to solve a problem. Here, the participants should let their imaginations run free in a brainstorming session. How would start-ups deal with the challenges? What new or previously inconceivable approaches are there? What sounds completely absurd? Only when all ideas have been evaluated and honed as necessary, can simple empathy prototypes be developed for the most promising approaches. Here, it is much more a matter of making the ideas comprehensible and creating empathy. These prototypes can be models made of card and paper or also videos. The prototypes are not intended to be perfect solutions. In the following stage, the prototypes are tested and in this phase, the user is of key importance. The teams present their ideas and check whether they are feasible, relying again on the feedback from the user.

The important thing is that these stages do not have to run in chronological sequence. The creative process also involves jumping to and fro between these stages as necessary. It doesn’t matter if mistakes are made here, because mistakes generate a learning process. By reconsidering and going back over things, new approaches to solutions can be found.

This is how a roller container with a personal keyboard might look
This is how a roller container with a personal keyboard might look
DB Systel GmbH (Stefan Opitz)

A modern workstation for shift work

One example from practice was to create a modern digital workstation that meets the needs of shift workers. The first item on the agenda for the workshop was to understand the problem. So the work processes were observed on site and the users were asked for their ideas.

The ideas suggested range from quick fixes and improvements through to more costly software projects. For example, the personnel involved keep changing their workstations during this process. There are considerable reservations about the sharing of keyboards, mice and telephone handsets. At very little expense, namely the use of personal cordless keyboards and mice, as well as cordless headsets, great improvements can be made here.

The implementation of a simple login for the ten or more applications required simultaneously, personal role-based dashboards, or the coupling of the future telephone system with databases for customer management would be more expensive.

The ideas for this were sketched on Post-its and whiteboards and then tried out and improved using empathy prototypes made of card.

Just do it

Another workshop looked at the idea of simplifying the coach sequence board on the platforms. Passengers should be able to find out immediately where their coach is in order to shorten the boarding times. For this purpose, simple cardboard signs with the respective letters were made and hung in the relevant platform sections. “Just do it,” says Reinhard Scharfschwerdt.

"Just do it": coach sequence boards are set up on the platform using cardboard signs

DB Systel GmbH (Reinhard Scharfschwerdt)

With this simple method, feedback could be quickly obtained from passengers and the reactions were very positive. Customers had the feeling that they were being taken seriously and that Deutsche Bahn cared about their problems. And with this simple methodology, errors can quickly be corrected.

But design thinking does not end with the workshop: the Skydeck design thinking team also supports the design thinking team. This is where ideas are accompanied from their conception through to the implementation phase. The new approaches to solutions include the drawing up of a business plan, the recruitment of partners and the search for resources and channels. The cost structure and possible sources of revenue are also to be investigated in greater detail. With revised prototypes, the ideas are tried out again and their feasibility is examined in extended tests.

In this way, off-the-wall ideas and wireframe or Lego modules can quickly be turned into simple solutions that are realistic and cost effective.

“In order to fully understand design thinking, you actually have to experience it yourself,” says Dubslaff. “It’s fun because the working atmosphere is different from anywhere else, and everything is fluid and movable.” “At the end of a challenge, the participants are often amazed at what they have achieved on a topic in such a short time,” he continues. “With us, they find the necessary freedom to work creatively.”