In an age when manufacturing looks toward the “fourth industrial revolution”, aka Industry 4.0, the focus of transformation tends to be where and how automation and smart machines can be introduced to operations and processes that have been in place for decades. As the dialogue continues, words like robotics, computerization and autonomous operations creep into the discussion.

Smart. Predictive. Resilient. Autonomous.

This leads to the obvious and persistent question…what happens to the people? Where do customers fit in this vision of Industry 4.0 with hyper converged systems and quantum computing powering autonomous enterprises? Where do employees fit in this predictive world powered by robotics and decentralized cognitive decision engines?

For two powerhouse brands, DuPont and Stanley Black & Decker, people sit in the middle of it all, the beating heart of Industry 4.0…thanks to strategic design.

Both organizations had unique issues to address. At DuPont, the question was not how to rethink manufacturing, but instead how to rethink the world through the lens of what DuPont’s customers could dream of buying. At Stanley Black & Decker, the question was not how to reimagine tools, but how to evolve manufacturing operations to empower talented, thoughtful and imaginative people with technology.

What if The World Was a Circuit?

Since 1802, DuPont has been synonymous with innovation. Manufacturing chemicals and materials that have become household names like Kevlar, nylon, Teflon, Corian and Lycra, DuPont’s leadership asked an audacious question: Instead of following the trends to build “smaller” – what if DuPont went BIGGER to reimagine the world as a circuit?

The first step in this journey was to listen, quite literally, and then understand how to white board their big ideas into reality. To do this, DuPont turned to strategic design methodologies to amplify the customer’s voice, adopting a research-led approach that values empathy over ease of deployment. To set the entire exercise up for success, Brian Ammons, Business Director, Smart Materials for DuPont, acknowledged that risk needed to be eliminated to open the opportunity for big change to be possible.

“It sounds hard to do – to think big and take real steps forward – so we de-risked,” he explained. “We set foundational principals at the very start to set-up what could be possible in a world without risk. We asked for the time, the budget and the people – specifically people with the drive to execute and the ability to think big – needed to succeed.”

By creating a new category of materials and devices, DuPont chose to work closely with an outside team of diverse, multi-disciplinary leaders with unique and varied backgrounds. Designit, a global strategic design firm, embedded teams into DuPont and across the industries and markets that the new smart materials business could potentially be applied.

For DuPont, imagining the world as a circuit is still a work in progress. Thanks to embracing a design-inspired, research-led approach, the transformation towards industry 4.0 and a smart material future is less about the products that can be sold and more about understanding where DuPont’s customers can reimagine and reinvent with DuPont. “It is less about industries and applications and more about how WE participate in the market and with customers,” concluded Ammons.

What if Machines Empowered People?

The leadership team at Stanley Black & Decker didn’t just commit to an Industry 4.0 strategy – they committed to transforming every factory around the globe by keeping people at the center of every move. This raised some interesting and complex questions that needed to be addressed early in their journey: How would teams – filled with technology skeptics and generations adverse to automation and change – embrace new tools and technologies to continue building some of the best power tools and security solutions on the market for over 177 years?

“Our purpose statement is that Stanley Black & Decker is for those who make the world,” noted Sudhi Bangalore, Vice President, Industry 4.0 at Stanley Black & Decker. “So, we knew we needed to start our transformation with the over 40,000 people across the world, in our factories, who make the tools that make the world.”

The company adopted a mindset where technology should be deployed to work collaboratively with people. By eschewing traditional research methodologies and embracing strategic design principles of human-centered, qualitative research that puts ego and assumption aside in favor of living in another person’s shoes, Stanley Black & Decker began to do the hardest work of all: leading with empathy. The design process revealed a new reality: Nobody was hesitant or resistant; Everyone was in search of opportunity.

In the end, empathy had to be driven by caring, which in turn empowered action and change. “Above all else, you have to care. If you care, you can apply smart technologies that empower those people to work in new and exciting ways,” concluded Bangalore. In the end, understanding was only part of the picture…having the desire to act on empathy has become the difference between intentions and actions.

Understanding the Power of Design

Strategic design methods are not magic. Design doesn’t mysteriously open a portal to a land of perfect products. It does, however, have the potential to make leaders uncomfortable. It invites criticism. It demands honesty. It creatively reshapes challenge into opportunity because it remains firmly grounded in a deep understanding of people.

While design is often thought of in the more hyper-creative, aesthetic work of business – advancing a brand or rethinking a product’s physical or aesthetic attributes – it is increasingly associated with more holistic innovation. In fact, strategic design is grounded in the idea that research and analysis of an organization’s internal and external inputs, data and trends can design innovative solutions from products to massive systemic change.

The difference, of course, is that modern strategic design drives innovation that is empathetic towards key stakeholders, from customers and prospects to employees and partners. It shifts the center of co-creation from gut-reactions of perceived market demands to collaborative, purposeful action based on customer voice.

Design can take the biggest problems and rethink and reshape them into bold, human responses.

This is the real power that both DuPont and Stanley Black & Decker individually tapped into by embarking on a design-led transformation journey. This was not research that could be done with a series of snappy surveys or external polls. The hard work of reimagination requires multi-disciplinary teams looking for the unexpected in a sweeping range of locations.

It’s Never Too Late To Get Started

The question often comes back to getting started, which is exactly what I asked Sunil Karkera, Global Managing Director of Designit, who shared his three foundational steps and guidelines to successful design.

  1. Never forget to design for humans It sounds simple…after all, who would forget this? As it turns out…at some point we have all likely lost sight of this as organizations strive for efficiency of design and optimization of margin. Karkera explained, “Don’t design for the sake of technology or the ideal end use of a product. You need to design for the human who will use the product.”
  2. Be grounded There is a temptation to do more dreaming than designing in this process – to think so aspirationally that failure, no matter how fast or cheap, is never an experience of failing forward and learning from a momentary setback. “Hands in the cloud, feet on the ground is what I tell people,” shared Karkera. “Design needs to be viable, do-able and most important, it needs to be achievable.”
  3. Design is a series of compromises When done correctly, compromises throughout the process will be informed by the research and data inputs included in analysis. This is not a process of gut reactions, but rather an exercise of collaboration to reach the right set of more-informed actions.

Beyond anything, my conversations with these three business leaders has highlighted a singular common message: Industry 4.0 and all the wonders of automation, robotics and technology that can come along with it will fail if people are left out of the equation.

Without empathy, transformation will just accelerate the bad decisions and detrimental behaviors of the past. For design to be successful, leaders must be willing to explore without limits and preconceptions, be flexible enough to bend and compromise, and most of all, be ready to not see their own reflection in the mirror, but instead see their customers and their employees.

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