Design thinking process which includes empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

When combined with other improvement methods and when directed in a strategic way, I have seen Design Thinking help teams be more creative and sincere in the improvement ideas the create.


This past week I led a Design Sprint for an amazing organization that was trying to understand what created trusted, or caused the erosion of trust between a patient and the care team. As I reflect on the team’s hard work, I was able to make some interesting connections between design thinking, humility, and psychological safety. Below are my observations.


As a quick crash course, design thinking is a creative problem solving approach that encourages the use of deep dive interviewing (ethnographic research, if you like fancy terms) to understand the problem through the eyes of the customer. By re-framing the problem, the designers purposely place themselves in the shoes of the customers and employ empathy to create better and more human-centered products, services, and processes.


Design thinking helps to awaken the emotional brain.


 In most of the teams I lead, the designers have received a message that their emotions do not belong in the workplace and are not welcome. In most cases where emotions are taboo, it is because emotions are associated with weakness. These messages to leave your emotions at home often comes from multiple sources: from a peer, someone of authority, a parent, of even the institution that trained the person. I personally studied risk management as an undergraduate and finance during graduate school. Do you think that my curriculum included emotional intelligence? The answer is, no.


 Regardless of where the message came from, it has caused many people to fall asleep to their emotions. Design thinking awakens people to their emotions, encouraging teams to bring forward their best selves and solutions using their head, their heart, and their gut.


Design thinking encourages empathy.


 Henry David Thoreau believed that there was no greater miracle than to look through someone else’s eyes, even for an instant. Empathy and understanding are core to design thinking. Once awake to their emotions, the designers are challenged to test their bias against reality, and to be open to the idea that there might be other viewpoints of the world. Across the design process, the designers are encouraged to take their glasses off (metaphor for how they view and experience the world) and look at the world through someone else’s lenses.


Design thinking can, and often does, serve as the starting point of self-discovery.


Once empathy exist, two things naturally happen (well… hopefully happen). The first, which I will talk about here, is that the designer is started down a path of self-discovery. The second, is that the customer is put at the center of the solution. This will be discussed in the next section.


 During the design session, especially on day one, I see the designers go through an internal battle. Their world – the experiences they have had, the opinions they have formed, and the realities they have created for themselves are turned upside down. This is both eye-opening and exhausting. The designer is in a volatile state here. If I had to guess, the average bedtime on day one is probably 8:30 p.m.


 As the session progresses, usually over the time span of a week, the energy in the room morphs. This journey from apprehension, to curiosity, to confidence often serves as the starting line of self-discovery for each of the individual designers.


Design thinking puts the customer at the center of the solution.


 Other than empathy, the second biggest core principle is humility. In order for a team to achieve breakthrough, they must first accept that they don’t have the answer. Or that what they thought was the answer might be wrong. Only through humility can the team create a customer-centered solution, accepting that maybe, just maybe, the customer knows what is best for themselves.


On some of the projects I have been a part of, I have seen customers clearly articulate their needs. While on other projects, I have seen customer’s struggle to put their needs in to words. When this is the case, the customer is often able to express their unmet needs are.


 With an explicit need in mind or with an unmet need in mind, the designers are positioned well to design on someone else’s behalf, keeping the person’s needs at the center of every innovative idea.


Design thinking creates psychological safety.


 When I work with teams using other improvement approaches, I often see teams playing it safe due to fear of failure. This both limits the team’s ability to innovate and make strong personal connections. By comparison, when I use design thinking, I often see more willingness to take risk. I am not saying the other methods can’t work, it is just my observation that the other methods do not create as much team chemistry and trust as design thinking does.

 Failing during the design process isn’t just acceptable, it is expected. In the context of design, failing is learning. This creates an environment for designers to share the ideas openly and creatively – this is a “must have” if the individual is ever to achieve one’s full potential (this is illustrated by Maslow’s Hierarchy, depicted below).

Maslow's Hierarchy

Design thinking can cause a ripple effect of new thinking across an organization.


 At the end of the design session, I always have the design team, which usually consists of front-line employees, prepare a report out. In most cases the presentation is made to senior leaders, with the format being walk the walls. No PowerPoint, just a gallery walk of the deep dive interviews, empathy maps, personas, customer motivators, How Might We statements, and prototypes.


 The turning point of every report out I have seen to date has been the team’s summary of what was learned because of empathy and what solutions are believed to be the most “sticky” (likely to make a true difference). When this information is shared, I often see a 180-degree turn happen in the room. Often times the leaders are being gently let in on the secret, that even their ideas (or at least their expectations of what solutions would be recommended) are misinformed.


 Here is where I see new doors in organization’s open. Even if it is a tiny sliver of an opening, there is no longer any denying that organization risk exists when team’s and organizations fail to employ empathy and humility. This reckoning, can serve as a ripple effect of new thinking, in which empathy and humility are used to become a more human-centered organization where ideas can be shared openly, innovation can thrive, and people can feel safe to be themselves.


This article was originally posted to LinkedIn on August 29, 2019. To join the conversation on LinkedIn, please use the following link – (

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Thomas West, MBB

I am passionate about helping organizations get better, by helping people be their best. My role as an ASQ Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt is to coach and mentor others to become creative problem-solvers and passionate change agents. This can only be achieved by giving others the tools, skills, and mindset they need to make and lead change.