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How to solve complex problems with a Customer Centric approach

Updated: Sep 24, 2022

How many times have you or your organization struggled to find a simple solution to a complex problem that will last the test of time?

At times we all struggle to approach a problem and come up with a creative, simple solution that will satisfy our customer needs and won’t get outdated shortly after it’s delivered. We have all gone though this process and many times we fail to recognize or adapt to changes in the requirements or needs from our customers. Unless we are perfect at what we do, which none of us are, we should always assume there is a better way of doing things. But how do we ensure that our solutions are not outdated from the get-go? How do ensure that the customer don’t change requirements? The answer is simple … we are missing a real Customer Centric approach that can last over time, from conception to delivery.

That doesn’t mean that we haven’t cared for the customer, it means that at times, other factors come into play that simply interject with providing the right solution, or things change over time and the solution becomes more complex.

Those were all valid questions, but perhaps the real questions we should be asking are “do we really understand our customer needs?” And “are we really meeting those expectations fully?” Maybe go a step further … “do we really know who our customer is and what do they really need?”

Fortunately, there are a set of principles, values and approaches to solve problems and enable a customer centric mentality that help bridge some of those gaps. They are usually found alone, applied as a discipline, a mindset or a framework but they are rarely applied altogether in unison for complex problem solving. At least not in a methodic way.

These few following steps will guide you on how Design Thinking, a Business Agility Mindset & Lean Principles will help you solve complex problems with a solutioning approach that will put the customer first, reduce your solution speed to market, avoid rework and will last over time.

What exactly are we talking about? Welcome to Design Thinking, Agility Mindset & Lean Principles

Let start with a super short definition of what every aspect of this solutioning idea really looks like in one sentence.

  • Design Thinking is an approach on how we explore and solve problems

  • Lean is a framework for focusing on value streams for the right outcomes

  • Business Agility is how organizations adapt to an ever-changing environment, both internally & externally.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is a process for creative problem solving. It encourages organizations to focus on the people they're creating for, which leads to better products, services, and internal processes. It is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test and it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.

Design Thinking is simply how we explore those problems and solutions. Everyone designs, whether it’s a simple solution, a collaborative outcome, or a conscious effort or not. If you’re solving a problem, and whether the solution is simple or not, you’re still designing a solution. Design Thinking is a process that helps us do it better.

There are five stages that contribute to the entire design project. They shouldn’t really be taken as sequential steps, but more so in iterations that feed from each other. Your goal throughout is to gain the deepest understanding of the users and what their ideal solution/product would be.

These stages are:

Empathize: Understand your customer needs

The goal is to gain an empathetic understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve for. Empathy is crucial to a customer centric solution oriented design process because it allows you to set aside your own assumptions about the problem to solve, the stakeholders and any surrounding circumstance affecting it, and gain real insight into your customer and their needs.

Define: State Your customer needs and problems you are solving for

At this point you and your team will gather the prior observations and synthesize them to define the main problems you want to solve for the customer. You will do so by creating problem statements. A common practice is to generate personas to assist you in maintaining the course during the ideation process and ensure you are covering all aspects of the problem we are trying to solve for, with a customer centric mindset.

Ideate: Create new ideas

After you have a solid understanding of the problems to solve and who your customers really are, you can start brainstorming with your team (or any other stakeholders) to come up with creative ideas to tackle the problems we are trying to solve for.

Prototype: From ideas to solutions

This is an experimental phase. The aim is to identify the best possible solution for each problem found.

Here you will generate a Proof of Concept and / or a Prototype. A Proof of Concept (POC) is a small exercise to test the design idea. While a Proof of Concept shows that a product or feature can be developed, a prototype shows How it will be developed.

5. Test your solution

You have to test the solution. Although this is the perceived final phase, remember that design thinking is iterative: Teams often use the results to redefine one or more further problems. So, you can return to previous stages to make further iterations, alterations, and refinements – to find or rule out alternative solutions.

Lean Principles

First, what is Lean Thinking anyway and why is it important? Lean is all about focusing on what matters most, removing waste, and increasing customer value.

Lean is about establishing a smooth process, doing only those activities that add customer value and eliminating all other activities that don’t; while iterating in a way that we learn from it and become better over time. It’s a phenomenal way to continuously improve.

There are five basic steps in acquiring a Lean approach to problem solving:

  • Identify the activities that create value

  • Determine the value stream

  • Eliminate waste, or any activities that do not add value

  • Allow the customer to “pull” products/services as needed

  • Improve the process

First, we need to understand that the value is always defined by the customer’s needs for a specific product. Hopefully through your Design Thinking process you were able to clearly identify those things that add value to your customer. Once the value (end goal) has been determined through your Design Thinking exercise, the next step is mapping the “value stream,” or all the steps and processes involved in taking a specific product or service from raw materials and ideas to delivering the final product to the customer.

Value-stream mapping is a very simple but incredibly helpful experience that when done properly it identifies all the actions that take a product or service through any process. When all the right stakeholders are involved, a "map" of the flow of material/product or service can be outlined through entire process of development to completion. The ultimate goal is to identify every step that does not create value and then find ways to eliminate those wasteful steps and just focus on those things that add value to our customer. This is what makes it a Customer Centric mindset.

the Agile Mindset

We often hear about the importance of having an Agile business. What that means is the ability to move quickly and easily adapt to the constant internal and external change. It has its inception in software development but is now a way for businesses to succeed and remain competitive in a complex and constantly changing environment.

So the 5 second definition would be that acquiring an agile mindset is about the ability to respond to change, uncertainty and ambiguity in ever changing environments. It’s about understanding and responding to change, adapting as you go.

The rub at times is that an Agile Mindset focus on customer centric value instead of the company shareholders, it prioritizes self-organizing empowered small teams instead of a top down control-and-command management; and utilizes a cross functional network to make decisions and respond fast to change as opposed to a hierarchical structure.

Although Agility was “created” in the software development arena, the Agile Mindset, the foundational values and supporting principles can be applied to any organization, at any level. However, the transition it is not an easy one.

Let us look and see what everything means. These are the 4 Values in the Agile Manifesto:

  1. Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

  2. Working software (product) over comprehensive documentation

  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  4. Responding to change over following a plan

You may have noticed that the common thread is around collaboration and flexibility over fixed and predetermined outputs. As it has always been explained, is not that the terms on the left eliminate the terms on right. It just means that while there is value in the items on the right, those choosing to take an agile approach prefer to value more those on the left.

In addition to these four values, there are twelve principles that agilists follow:

  1. Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software (product).

  2. Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer's competitive advantage.

  3. Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.

  4. Businesspeople and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

  5. Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.

  6. The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is a face-to-face conversation.

  7. Working software (product or service) is the primary measure of progress.

  8. Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

  9. Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.

  10. Simplicity - the art of maximizing the amount of work not done - is essential.

  11. The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.

  12. At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

These principles should guide our daily interactions and approach to doing business in an agile environment. It should shape and help us craft the desired behaviors for collaboration. They support the 4 Agile Values that will drive customer value.

Once these principles are applied consistently, it becomes second nature for the team members and across the organization. When these habits are acquired and practiced consistently it becomes part of your mindset.

This Agile mindset enables any organization to move much faster, adapt to changes along the way and overcome obstacles easier.

At an organizational level, the consistency in the habits applied by their employees, not the tools or frameworks that are applied, build the organizational character and culture.

Bringing it all together

You may be wondering; how do I apply all of this together and why it is important? Why not take small bites and implement them a little bit at a time?

Ideally, you do have the time to analyze each approach, get your feet wet and implement them in your organization one at a time. As a matter of fact, you may very well be doing some of it or most of it without really having a framework to support it. And that is ok.

What bring it all together is the Customer Centric approach that design thinking brings to the table. Focusing our solution based on our customer needs is essential for customer satisfaction. And with an environment with ever changing requirements and with evolving customer needs, now more than ever and Agile Mindset is required to respond to those changes quickly and efficiently without jeopardizing your organizations health and wellbeing. And to do it efficiently, we should take a real Lean approach, eliminating waste and just focusing on those workstreams that add the most value as we move towards our delivery goal.

If now you wonder where to start, start with a clear understanding on what does your client really need. Have a problem statement. What are you REALLY solving for? What does success looks like?

Your next step is really to come up with ideas to solve for that problem, avoid extra work that doesn’t really solve the problem, avoid re work, adapt fast to changes, enable team collaboration and empower them to deliver.

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