Developing the Mindset: Design Thinking in Learning Solutions

Departments - Off the Shelf

February 5, 2019

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Design thinking lays out all possible options, then chooses the most appropriate.
AKHILA VASAN, Program Manager, Food Safety & Education, Grocery Manufacturers Association

Three years ago, we were talking about a disruptive industry, but today we are living in one. Change, be it regulatory evolution or consumer expectation, is constant. The food industry is challenged with an aging workforce, high attrition rates, operational challenges due to regulatory changes, customer demands, and cultural diversity, to name a few. Employees at the plant level are at the forefront of producing safe food for consumers. Empowering employees with the right information and the knowledge to succeed in their roles is the critical difference between a recall and ensuring customers’ trust in a product.

So how do we help those in charge of safeguarding our food understand this important role? Training and education programs that help people understand the why is often a common answer — empowering them to be responsible, make decisions and reach out for help when needed. With a myriad of training options available, it can be an overwhelming challenge to weave in company-specific practices.

A tried-and-tested solution is to use design thinking. Design thinking, often associated with R&D or innovation groups, is a creative and systematic approach to lay out all possible options and choose those that are most appropriate. It is a human-centered and prototype-driven approach, where you are constantly fine-tuning your thought process to create solutions that are desirable, feasible, and viable.

Following are the key components of integrating design thinking into your education and training process.

  1. Assemble: Building a design-thinking team is often a matter of assembling a multi-disciplinary team with people from different backgrounds. People who can take a 50,000-foot view are especially important in building holistically framed solutions.
  2. Understand: Empathize with and place employees’ needs and conditions ahead of the solution. Frontline workers put in long hours and are often on their feet performing repeated actions every day. Seeing things from their perspective is instructive for developing the right approach. Empathize with your employees by observing their behavior in the context of their lives, engaging them in conversations, and eliciting stories. Empathy is the centerpiece of a human-centered design process.
  3. Define: The goal of the define mode is to craft a meaningful and actionable problem statement. Based on your understanding of the problem, you can synthesize various thoughts into structured observations and powerful insights. Creating a user persona is helpful in preventing scope creep, and ensuring you stay on track. One example would be developing a training program to ensure plant employees are placing the right label on the right product during the manufacturing process.
  4. Explore or Ideate: Akin to conducting a hazard analysis, in which you list all potential hazards, this stage involves brainstorming and listing ideas. The focus is on quantity, not quality. Once you have conducted a successful brainstorming session, narrow down and select those options that fit the problem statement and persona. Use sticky notes, create mind maps, sketch, implement Draw Toast (, or follow other similar approaches for ideation.
  5. Prototype: To avoid losing innovation potential, two or three ideas are selected for prototyping in response to the problem statement. In this iterative process, create an inexpensive, tangible version of the chosen idea(s) including how the training will look and the props it may require. Using sketches, mock-ups, or a small implementation are possible means to prototype trainings.
  6. Test: Typically conducted in tandem with the prototype phase, the test phase allows users to interact with the learning prototype. Testing is an opportunity to understand the user and empathize with a potential solution (rather than with the user, as in the empathy step). Get feedback by creating experiences or asking users to compare options.
  7. Evolve: Regularly reassess if the developed training solution is desirable, feasible, and viable. Even the most established training programs and manuals undergo updates to account for new technologies, information, or audiences.

A successful design-thinking process is one in which people are willing to push boundaries and come up with out-of-the-box ideas. Since these ideas are tested continuously for their resilience through the brainstorming, prototyping, testing, and evolving stages, heavily supporting an idea or influencing it will not result in a favorable solution for frontline workers. So, thinking about how employees feel and what they need is key to developing effective solutions.