Why We Should All Embrace A Little Design Thinking
Design thinking is a creative, non-linear approach to problem-solving. In this interview, Hiromi Hara, Managing Director SAP Labs Japan, talks about how it can help to break down boundaries, promote empathy and diversity, and understand people better
by Geoff Poulton | 10 Feb, 2022
Let’s talk first about what design thinking is, before we explore how it plays a part in your work. What’s your personal definition of design thinking?
For me, it’s a way to find creativity in yourself. It can also give you confidence to embark on a journey into the great unknown.
Can you give us an example of design thinking in action?
My favorite one is about General Electric (GE) and MRI machines. They’re a very important medical tool, but they can be pretty scary – they’re loud, tightly enclosed. For kids, especially, having an MRI can be quite daunting. I had to go to the hospital a lot as a child, so I can really empathize with this. A few years ago, there was a guy at GE, Doug Dietz, who wanted to make the process more enjoyable for children. Now, if you ask someone with a typical technical or business background how they’d do this, they usually try to think of technical solutions like making the machines quieter or speeding up the whole process. But a more empathetic, design-thinking-led approach, is different. And this is what Doug did: he turned it into a pirate adventure, with toys, pictures on the wall, lights and so on. It was a pretty simple, analog solution, but it made the whole experience more enjoyable for kids.
So empathy is important for design thinking?
It’s the most important aspect, I’d say. But design thinking is also about discovering insights and synthesizing findings to redefine a problem. After that, you have to get creative to come up with ideas on how to solve the problem.
Why does this appeal to you personally?
I love to be creative. And I also like to be the one to inspire others to be creative.
How did you first get involved with design thinking?
It was back in 2012. SAP wanted to incorporate more design thinking into the company and was looking for someone to help disseminate some of the ideas and principles. I was in a pre-sales role at the time, but I was drawn to design thinking because of the creativity. Other people thought I would be a good fit for the role, so I became a sort of ‘evangelist’ for design thinking.
Why is design thinking important for SAP?
We tend to be seen as a company that isn’t very creative, because we sell ERP software. That means we have a lot of people who are very skilled with numbers and analytical thinking. Things change: the customer’s world is changing and so is ours. Sometimes you need to look at the world with fresh eyes. Design thinking can really help with that. It’s a skill we need more of.
Can you talk about how this would work with a customer?
Usually, I’m approached by a sales colleague or sometimes a customer directly. First, I listen to what they have to say, which can sometimes be a vague definition of a problem they have – ‘We want to have more sales’ or ‘We want to push our product in more markets’, that kind of thing. Then we go through lots of questions to obtain different insights and redefine the problem. The aim of this is often to look at things from the customer’s perspective, rather than our own. Then comes the ideation phase – we try to get as many ideas as possible, before putting together some prototype solutions to experiment with. The final stage is the test phase, but this can also help redefine a problem or gain an even better understanding to go back and make other changes. It’s a non-linear process.
You’re now applying this experience to a different role as COO of SAP Labs Japan. Tell us more about that.
The Lab is one of 20 around the world and was set up in late 2019. Our aim is to get closer to our customers and become a co-innovation partner for Japanese companies, especially for supply chains. As the Lab is still in something of a ‘start-up’ mode, we have plenty of freedom to shape how we operate and we want to become a role model for the other Labs. This is where design thinking comes in: How can we tackle our customers' problems in order to detect their real needs and offer the exact solution which provides value? We recently held a workshop around empathizing with certain customers like chief manufacturing officers, for example, to develop new approaches. Visualization plays a really important part in this. We use icons and images as well as text to facilitate discussions. Images stick in your memory and can make workshops more fun and engaging. A facilitator can draw them during a meeting to add a visual element that inspires discussion.
How has this way of thinking impacted your life away from work – do you ever use design thinking for other things?
Oh yes! My husband and I did some design thinking ‘workshops’ to come up with the design for our house, for example. We put it all together and handed it over to the interior design company and they were totally surprised. Normally they would send a questionnaire to a client and base their design proposals on that. But we thought it was boring, so we took our own approach. Actually, the design company even took some of the ideas afterward to use in their own materials!
Where do you get your inspiration and creativity from?
It sounds cliche but everyone inspires me. Solving business problems is often about knowing people. So many issues come from people: communication problems, how they perceive certain things, how they go about trying to solve them. To find sustainable solutions, we have to know people, and I love to know people.
Let’s talk about diversity. Do you think there’s enough diversity in the Japanese business world?
It’s definitely getting better. When I started my career, just over 20 years ago, it was less diverse than now. The main challenge we still face is a lack of women in management – in business and in politics. It’s interesting for me to observe the two different areas that I am a part of. The classic business world is still dominated by older men, and, for me to fit in, I need to speak their language. But the design thinking community is much more diverse – we are all equal. I think we need to have more of this in the world, where no specific language exists. Design thinking is very inclusive. I always say to people who are interested in design thinking: you need diversity in your team. Not just gender diversity, but also social and generational diversity.
Are you optimistic about this happening in the future?
I am. It seems that the younger generation has fewer boundaries. Look at everything that’s starting to change in gender and race. As a design thinker, I see this as a very positive step. Everyone can make a positive, creative contribution to the world. And if we have more creativity and understanding, then we have fewer boundaries. Everyone can actively engage with all sorts of problems to make the future better.