Design Thinking for Operational Excellence

I was the Chairman at an Operational Excellence and Business Transformation conference in Amsterdam this past March (2023) which was produced by CParity.  The lead-off workshop was on Design Thinking.

I must admit; my first impression of the workshop was mixed.  I thought the concepts of Design Thinking and its approaches were novel.  But it did not resonate with me because I could not relate to the exercises and problem statements that were being delivered. The connection was not there.

So I was quite surprised when, a month after the conference, the speaker contacted me and shared with me how interesting he found the discipline of Operational Excellence to be in general, and my book, “State of Readiness” in particular; so much so that he had done a complete deconstruction of my book and invited me to the game board he created and organized on Klaxoon

My book is divided into four parts and each part has between five and seven chapters.  Per chapter, he created a game board that consisted of; a heading with the title of the chapter, an affinity diagram which shared what he heard and what my main message was supposed to be, boxes where topic areas and things he found interesting could be collected, and a place where ideas for workshops and activities to learn the lessons in the chapter could be outlined.

Truth be told; I was flabbergasted at the level and amount of work He did.  It really was quite extraordinary. And I was fascinated by what he presented, seeing the learning opportunities presented in such a way.

I always thought of myself as a “Systems Thinker” with how everything is interconnected and interoperable.  But being an impatient businessman from New York, I always gravitate to wanting to just “push a button or take a pill” to solve problems or achieve some end.  Maybe it goes back to my Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) days when I would be presented with a screen that had twenty fields and I just cared about three; why do I have to suffer the other seventeen?

But now I realized that I really was a “Design Thinker”; someone who knows the systems exist (or should exist) and demands that as much as is possible be done in the background and to only serve-up to the user, in terms they can easily and readily understand, that which the user needs in the simplest manner possible.

So I we co-created a “Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM” series of workshops and brainstormed some related offerings. The results of which are some real next-level thinking and approaches in the design and deployment of Operational Excellence (and Continuous Improvement) programs themselves and the many considerations related to programs.

But some background on the disciplines of Systems Thinking and Design Thinking is needed to understand the greater results achieved.

Systems Thinking versus Design Thinking

Systems Thinking and Design Thinking are two distinct approaches that offer unique perspectives and methodologies for problem-solving and innovation.  While they share some similarities, they are fundamentally different in their focus, principles, and applications.  This article explores the key differences between Systems Thinking and Design Thinking, highlighting their core concepts, processes, and outcomes.

Systems Thinking is an interdisciplinary approach that seeks to understand the complex interactions and interdependencies within a system and across systems that are interdependent.  It views a problem or situation as part of a larger system and emphasizes the relationships and feedback loops among its components.  Systems Thinking recognizes that changing one element can have ripple effects on the entire system.

Design Thinking, on the other hand, is a human-centered approach to problem-solving that places empathy and user needs at the forefront.  It involves a creative and iterative process that looks to identify and address users’ latent needs through innovation.  Design Thinking focuses on creating tangible and practical solutions that enhance user experiences and meet specific requirements.

One of the key distinctions between Systems Thinking and Design Thinking lies in their scope.  Systems Thinking takes a holistic view, considering the broader context and the interconnectedness of various elements.  It aims to understand the underlying structure and dynamics of the system, often analyzing complex systems with multiple variables and feedback loops.  In contrast, Design Thinking typically zooms in on a specific problem or challenge, focusing on understanding users, their needs, and creating innovative solutions within a defined scope.

Another fundamental difference is their approach to problem framing.  Systems Thinking emphasizes problem definition by identifying the root causes and systemic issues that contribute to a problem.  It looks beyond the surface symptoms to uncover the underlying patterns and structures that shape the problem.  Design Thinking, on the other hand, often starts with a loosely defined problem or challenge and employs techniques like user research and empathy to gain insights and reframe the problem in a way that aligns with user needs and aspirations.

The processes involved in Systems Thinking and Design Thinking also differ.  Systems Thinking typically follows a cyclical process that involves mapping the system, identifying patterns, analyzing feedback loops, and leveraging systems tools and techniques to gain insights into the system’s behavior.  It focuses on understanding the system’s structure and finding leverage points for intervention.  Design Thinking, in contrast, typically follows a non-linear, iterative process that involves stages such as empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.  It encourages divergent thinking and multiple iterations to generate and refine ideas before converging on a final solution.

Furthermore, the desired outcomes of Systems Thinking and Design Thinking diverge.  Systems Thinking aims to promote systemic change by addressing the underlying causes and creating long-term sustainable solutions.  It seeks to improve the overall functioning and effectiveness of a system, considering the interconnectedness of its parts. Whereas Design Thinking emphasizes creating user-centered solutions that are practical, feasible, and desirable.  It aims to generate innovative ideas and prototypes that address specific user needs and enhance their experiences.

While both Systems Thinking and Design Thinking are valuable approaches for problem-solving and innovation, they differ in their scope, problem framing, processes, and outcomes.  Systems Thinking provides a holistic understanding of complex systems and their interdependencies, seeking systemic change.  Design Thinking, on the other hand, focuses on human-centered problem-solving, generating user-centric solutions within a defined scope.  Both approaches have their strengths and can be complementary, depending on the nature of the problem and the desired outcomes.

Design Thinking for Operational Excellence.

Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM is an application of the Design Thinking methodology to improve operational processes and enhance overall organizational efficiency.  The main benefit is improved communication and operational alignment between all stakeholders by carefully orchestrating and managing human conversations focusing in listening and empathizing with every stakeholder who will be instrumental in making the change happen or is affected by the change.

In this context Design Thinking is used to focus on human emotions, anxiety, and resistance on the one hand but also leveraging the excitement; the eagerness to change and optimism many stakeholders experience when organizations need to change.

After all change is not possible without people and ensuring everybody not only intellectually but also emotionally understands why change is needed, what the opportunities and threats are and how their lives will change after the OPEX program is implemented ensures everybody is on board and well informed before the change starts and during the journey to come.

It involves using the principles and tools of Design Thinking to identify, understand, and address operational challenges and opportunities in a systematic and user-centric manner.

Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM recognizes that operational processes are not just technical or mechanical in nature but involve the experiences and interactions of employees, customers, and other stakeholders.  It aims to foster a culture of innovation and continuous improvement by leveraging the human-centered approach of Design Thinking.

The key steps involved in Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM typically include:

  • Empathize: This stage involves understanding the needs, pain points, and perspectives of the people involved in the operational processes.  It includes engaging with employees, customers, and other stakeholders to gain insights into their experiences and challenges.
  • Define: In this stage, the focus is on defining the problem or opportunity in a way that aligns with user needs and organizational goals.  It involves synthesizing the insights gathered during the empathize stage and identifying the specific operational issues that need to be addressed.
  • Ideate: This stage encourages divergent thinking to generate a wide range of ideas and potential solutions.  It involves brainstorming sessions and collaborative workshops where cross-functional teams can explore innovative approaches to improve operational processes.
  • Capture current state and assumptions: This stage captures the current state in a snapshot to ensure the main arguments and drivers are documented and capture important influencing factors when the decision was made.  This allows for objective reflection and evaluation of how good those decisions were in the past and what were the known and unknow factors affecting decisions to take forward for continuous future learnings.
  • Prototype: In this stage, selected ideas from the ideation stage are translated into tangible prototypes or models.  These prototypes can be physical, digital, or even conceptual representations of the proposed solutions.  Prototyping allows stakeholders to visualize and test potential solutions before implementing them on a larger scale.
  • Test: The prototypes developed in the previous stage are tested and evaluated to gather feedback and validate their effectiveness.  This involves conducting experiments, simulations, or small-scale trials to assess the impact of the proposed solutions on operational processes and user experiences.
  • Implement: Based on the insights gained from testing, the most viable and effective solutions are selected for implementation.  This stage involves planning and executing the necessary changes to operational processes, which may include process redesign, automation, technology adoption, or changes in organizational structure.
  • Iterate: Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM recognizes that improvement is an ongoing process.  Therefore, the iterative nature of Design Thinking ensures that continuous feedback, monitoring, and refinement are integrated into the operational processes.  This allows for further optimization and adaptation based on real-world experiences and evolving user needs over time.
  • Document & Archive: Design Thinking workshops are a tremendous source of knowledge and should be documented and archived to be used for similar challenges in the future but also for retrospectives and post-analysis both for what was successful as well as what failed.  In most failed projects people will come back and say, “If we had known____ Then we would have ___” 

Those learnings are incredible valuable and are part of the companies competitive advantage to avoid repeating mistakes and reoccurring patterns that are certain to fail.

By applying Design Thinking to Operational ExcellenceTM, organizations can achieve several benefits, including:

  • Managers can evaluate organizational readiness to change: Design Thinking workshops allow for simulations of “What if…” scenarios diving into the expected and potential future states and uncover un-known situations, scenarios and opportunities. And as such, are helpful for managers to understand what the current readiness of their organization is and if they are ready to start the journey.
  • Employee buy-in and emotional readiness: Design Thinking allows stakeholders affected by change to share and voice their anxiety, hopes and aspirations and discover on their own “What’s in for me” as part of open, honest, and constructive conversation.
  • Enhanced user experiences: Design Thinking focuses on understanding and meeting user needs, resulting in improved experiences for employees, customers, and other stakeholders involved in operational processes.
  • Increased efficiency and effectiveness: By identifying and addressing operational challenges, Design Thinking can streamline processes, reduce waste, and optimize resource allocation, leading to increased efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Innovation and creativity: Design Thinking encourages innovative thinking and problem-solving, fostering a culture of creativity within the organization.  This can lead to breakthrough solutions and novel approaches to operational challenges.
  • Collaboration and cross-functional alignment: Design Thinking brings together diverse stakeholders and encourages cross-functional collaboration, enabling a holistic understanding of operational processes and fostering alignment towards common goals.
  • Agility and adaptability: The iterative nature of Design Thinking allows organizations to be agile and adaptable in response to changing market dynamics and evolving user needs.  It promotes a culture of continuous improvement and learning.

Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM provides a structured and user-centric approach to improving operational processes and driving organizational performance.  It combines empathy, creativity, and iteration to foster innovation, enhance user experiences, and optimize operational efficiency.  Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM offers a new approach to tackle the toughest and hardest question in organizational change:

“How to involve humans in a conscious and cautious manner to let them understand why change is necessary and make them strong advocates and allies that are eager to make the change happen”

Case Study

My firm often gets hired to help companies design and deploy their Operational Excellence (or Continuous Improvement) programs or to revitalize and stand-up those that have stalled or otherwise lost their way.

In most cases, it is because there is no clear and concise purpose or ambition for having one; only ones that are notional.  And being notional, it is challenging, if not impossible, to achieve alignment (to what?).  And without alignment, there will not be a commitment.

In my book, “State of Readiness”, I offer a definition of Operational Excellence which is as follows;

“Operational Excellence is a state of readiness that is attained as the efforts throughout the organization reach a state of alignment for achieving its strategies; and where the corporate culture is committed to the continuous and deliberate improvement of company performance AND the circumstances of those who work there – and is precursor to becoming a high-performance organization.”
– Joseph Paris

This definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation.  I do this purposely because the “why” of Operational Excellence is going to vary from company to company, the business factors it faces, where on the business cycle it finds itself, and other factors and considerations.

To help distill out the “why”, I wrote an article entitled “The 9 Questions To Ask About Operational Excellence”.  The questions are intended to draw from the respondents (the stakeholders of the program) what, specifically, is hoped to be achieved by designing and deploying and Operational Excellence program.

But this process can take a considerable amount of time; interviewing the stakeholders, reviewing what was shared, trying to find the preponderance of the commonality, creating iterations of the report, and finally agreeing.

So it’s no accident that one of the first Design Thinking for Operational ExcellenceTM workshops we created was designed to help the stakeholders of an Operational Excellence program snap into focus its purpose and success factors (referred to as the “lighthouse”), what the “headline” would be if the Wall Street Journal ran a special edition on the success of the program; and what some of the supporting “articles” would be with supporting details (the KPI’s of the program).

State of Readiness”, Part-1, Chapter-1: “What is Operational Excellence.” game board dimensions: 90cm (35.43”) tall by 275cm (108.26”) wide

But that was just theory.  What would happen in real life?

I ran this workshop with a client of mine who needed to reconstitute their Operational Excellence program because it had run adrift and lacked purpose.  There were senior representatives from; operations, quality, supply chain, human resources, finance, and the operational excellence team.  All told, there were twelve people in the group.

I knew the workshop would yield a conclusion because I had used the same approach time and again as described above with individual interviews and analysis (even if slightly modified from instance to instance).

What I suspected would happen, but did not know for sure, was the way it all played out.

A couple of things in particular stood out…

  • Everyone was standing for almost the entire time of the workshop. At approximately three-foot tall and nine-foot wide, the game board is big and naturally inviting.
  • Instead of looking at each other as they spoke, they mostly looked at the game board; except when the conversation was one-on-one and doing a deep dive into a detail.  It was as if the team had coalesced and created an alliance against a common foe; which was the problem that needed solving.  And, unlike a whiteboard, the game board is also eye-catching and helps keep people’s attention and focus.
  • They quickly found a common language instead of using the vernacular of their position.  When a word that was not common was used, it was immediately defined so everyone could understand, or a common word was substituted.
  • It is best if the moderator does not have a stake in the exercise.  At first, I tried to use one of the team members as a moderator.  Perhaps they were not properly prepared to be a moderator (that would be my bad for not training them).  But what I did see is that they unconsciously injected the bias of their position into the conversation.
  • No one person made the decision. Instead and because collective buy-in was established, the decision was developed and made by the group. This spread the risk and resulted in getting to a conclusion more natural and with little anxiety.

I recognized this challenge fairly quickly and took over the role of moderator; keeping in mind that the moderator’s role is to ack as Sherpa for the workshop journey, carrying the load and guiding the way.  And I can be unbiased because my role is to help a client achieve a success they have determined and shared.

The end result: their Operational Excellence program was reconstituted in a day with a single meeting and not over months with a great many meetings and deliberations. 

Of course, this did not mean their work was done and their Operational Excellence program was deployed.  But it did mean that it was the end of the beginning; everyone knew what success looked like and were aligned to achieving that success.  They were committed and had commitment to achieving that success. 

And having snapped into focus the vision and the strategy, now they had to develop the tactics and start doing the work.


It has been a while since I have witnessed something new with the potential to be transformative in the disciplines of Operational Excellence and Continuous Improvement; but the introduction of Design Thinking into these disciplines does just that.

Looking at the discipline of Operational Excellence through the lens of Design Thinking offers a innovative approach for organizations to pursue Operational Excellence.  By prioritizing empathy, communication, collaboration, and iterative problem-solving, it fosters a culture of openness where innovation can thrive.

Design Thinking’s human-centric focus ensures that processes and solutions are tailored to meet the genuine needs and preferences of both employees and customers – and everyone in the value-chain – leading to enhanced user experiences and higher satisfaction for all.  Moreover, it promotes cross-functional collaboration, breaking down silos and encouraging diverse perspectives to rise and be heard.  Ultimately, Design Thinking’s emphasis on experimentation and adaptability empowers organizations to remain agile and responsive in a rapidly evolving business landscape, making it an invaluable tool for achieving Operational Excellence.

About the Author

Joseph Paris

Paris is an international expert in the field of Operational Excellence, organizational design, strategy design and deployment, and helping companies become high-performance organizations.  His vehicles for change include being the Founder of; the XONITEK Group of Companies; the Operational Excellence Society; and the Readiness Institute.

He is a sought-after speaker and lecturer and his book, “State of Readiness” has been endorsed by senior leaders at some of the most respected companies in the world.

Click here to learn more about Joseph Paris or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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