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Applicability of Design Thinking to the Construction Industry

The aim of the paper to apply design thinking to the construction industry via recent case studies.

This paper was first presented at GPD 2017 by Olavi Uusitalo from Holmark.

Design thinking, first used to make unique products, is now being applied to complex, intangible issues, such as how a customer experiences a service and in company strategy.

A company-wide focus on it offers good opportunities for humanizing technology and for developing emotionally resonant services. A collaborative designthinking may solve several supply chain problems such compatibility of components, right information and good communication. The paper employees several cases from the construction industry.

1. Introduction

Customer relationship management (CRM) has been used for decades. It should collect information from each customer and share the information in the organization. CRM seems to work only for marketing people but not over the all organization. CRM systems are not necessarily user friendly. They probably need expensive tailoring for small and medium size firms (SMEs).

The aim of the design is to reduce the everyday complexities. People need help making sense of them. People need their interactions with technologies and other complex systems to be simple, intuitive, and pleasurable. Design thinking’s principles -empathy with users, a discipline of prototyping, and tolerance for failure for instance – are the best tools for creating simple, intuitive and neat interactions and for developing a responsive, flexible organizational culture.

A focus on design thinking offers unique chances for humanizing technology and for developing emotionally resonant products and services. Adopting this perspective isn’t easy. But doing so helps create a workplace where people want to be, one that responds quickly to troubles on deliveries and changing business dynamics and empowers individual contributors. And because design is empathetic, it implicitly drives a more thoughtful, human approach to business. [1]

Once people try the design thinking tools and see the benefits, they get excited. That’s where the second challenge kicks in: You cannot master any skill just by doing a workshop; you need to practice it until it becomes second nature. Internal acceptance comes only with proven results. Start small with an initiative that has good odds of success (few internal stakeholders, not a lot of dependencies, fairly clear success criteria). [2].

The aim of the paper is to find out whether design thinking could help firms to form a comprehensive view of their products and processes. This means to enlarged the focus on customer experience even in small things and understand how good customer experience is made and how it is destroyed. The focus is SMEs in the construction industry.

However, I try to take ideas from large firms experience of design thinking. I use several case examples to illustrate the situation where I think design thinking could have been helpful. The rest of the paper has three parts. First, the idea, the content and the process of design thinking are briefly discussed. Second, the recent empirical cases from the construction industry are illustrated. Third, in the conclusion an example, balcony and terrace glazing from the glass process and the managerial implication are given.

2. Design thinking

2.1. The idea and the content of design thinking

Firms must focus on users’ experiences, especially their emotional ones. To build empathy with users, a design thinking organization let employees to observe behaviour and make conclusions about what customers want and need. These conclusions may be very hard to express in quantitative language. Instead, organizations that identify design use emotional language (desires, aspirations, engagement, and experience) to illustrate products and users.

Design thinking, first used to make physical objects, is increasingly being applied to complex, intangible issues, such as how a customer experiences a service and also company strategy. Design thinkers tend to use physical models, also known as design artifacts, to explore, define, and communicate. Those models—primarily diagrams and sketches— supplement and in some cases replace the spreadsheets, specifications, and other documents that. [1]

In a firm emphasizing efficiency and engineering rigor the designers had little status or influence. In 1996 Samsung made a change and started to create design lead culture and recruited a lot of designers (now 1600 designers). The innovation process begins with research conducted by multidisciplinary teams of designers, engineers, marketers, ethnographers, musicians, and writers who search for users’ unmet needs and identify cultural, technological, and economic trends. Although designers have strong support from top management they face continuously challenges coming from the company’s deep-rooted efficiency-focused management practices. Design must co-operate intensively with suppliers to get new designs for both products and services. [2].

In many ways, the idea of intervention design is very relevant for B2B companies. Because B2B customer relationships are often very intimate, rapid iterative prototyping in collaboration with the customer— which makes the customer more confident in the change as the intervention design goes on— is easier to do. Recently a food manufacturer applied a collaborative design-thinking approach to solve supply chain challenges with its supermarket customers. [3]

Pepsi reinforces the importance of finding the right person to launce design thinking and make a change. The company pushes design thinking through entire system from product creation to packing and labelling to how a product looks on the shelf and how consumers interact with it. According to CEO their products look like they’re tailored to the right cohort groups, and our packaging looks great, too. She defined a well-designed product as one you fall in love with.

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Pepsi pays a lot more attention to user experience focusing on crunch, taste, and everything else now pushes us to rethink shape, packaging, form, and function. All of that has consequences for what machinery we put in place—to produce, say, a plastic tray instead of a flex bag. It forces the design thinking both back in the supply chain and forward to marketing channel. Pepsi’s retailers fell in love with the person responsible for design thinking and invited him to their shops to talk about how to reset their shelves. [4].

2.2. The Design Thinking process

The design thinking process (Figure 1) has four stages: Immersion, Analysis and synthesis, Ideation and Prototyping [5]. The first one is broken down into two parts: Preliminary Immersion (PI) and In-Depth Immersion (IDI). PI seeks an initial understanding of the problem and, if needed, to reframe it. I-DI tries to identify the needs of the stakeholders (for instance in renovation of apartment buildings) involved in the project, and the opportunities that are likely to arise from an understanding of their experience regarding the issue under scrutiny.

Analysis and Synthesis tries to organize the data visually so as to indicate patterns that will help to provide an understanding of the whole (including the relevant stakeholders) and identify opportunities and challenges. Analysis and Synthesis with the other stages described in Figure 1 is not as a step in a linear process, but rather as a part of a tangled whole, where each stage impinges on other stages.

For instance, Analysis may occur during Immersion and act as a support for the next phase, Ideation. In Ideation innovative ideas are tried to generate through collaborative activities. In Synthesis solutions (on the topic under scrutiny) are generated by using tools developed in Analysis. The ideas/solutions generated are then selected – on the basis of business goals, technological feasibility and, naturally, the human needs that are to be met – for validation in the Prototyping stage. [5]

Figure 1. Design Thinking process [5]
Figure 1. Design Thinking process [5]

3. Empirical cases

The empirical cases come from the construction industry. I have myself experienced them and they took place during the last ten years. Design thinking is not a new thing. In the travel business people have unwittingly used it. The first case illustrates this. It comes from the travel business and from the late 1990s. The second case is an illustration of a six-year assembly process of a geotherm heating system in a private house. The third case tackles bathroom renovations. The last case is story of the missing bolts of a chimney cover.

3.1. Experience from Australia

Twenty years ago I travel to Australia. I arrived the hotel at midnight. At the entrance door I just happened to count the hours, 30, I had travelled from my home door. At the reception the lady said politely that I had to wait for my room another half an hour. Since I knew my travel hours it was easy for to say: “That is not a big deal. It does not matter whether I travel 30 hours or 30.5 hours” Immediately she switched the tone by saying that there is a honeymoon sweet waiting for you. For eight days I lived in a large, nice sweet having living room with TV, bedroom with TV and balcony to the north, bathroom with jacuzzi and kitchenette.

3.2. Where is the expertise and service?

Everything started six years ago, when I visited the construction exhibition to get acquainted with geotherm systems for private houses. I had considered switching from oil to geotherm. In addition to the three offers received in the exhibition I asked a fourth one on the web pages of a domestic supplier (later on the original equipment manufacturer / OEM). The OEM never replied. About a year later in March 2012 I met in another occasion the management of the OEM. They presented me the equipment I had been interested in. Next month a local dealer chosen by the OEM made me an offer.

In early June I asked for an offer for a more powerful unit. I neither got a new offer nor a contact to the dealer until August. I got a new offer, accepted it and fixed the drilling and assembly dates which were a month later than planned. This mixed up my schedule since I had planned to make the necessary renovation work between my two trips. The assembly went almost without any troubles. The physical size (larger than expected) of the heating unit caused extra work. The lack of electrical drawings prevented me from making the electrical installations. The first technician from the OEM made them in the next day while I was on trip. The system seemed to work.

As the days got cooler the troubles started. The heating unit was connected directly to radiators without any buffer cylinder. This made the radiators creak while they cooled and warmed up. Usually a buffer cylinder is installed in the heating system as the water circulating continuously through the buffer cylinder is approximately at the same temperature which prevent the radiators making noise. The lights started to flicker all over the house because of the high ignition current taken by the compressor. This was fixed on March 2013 by the second OEM technician. The next trouble occurred when the expansion container stopped working. The replacement of it the container took half a year regardless of several contacts. Troubles continued.

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By Christmas 2013 the heating in the bathroom did not work. One pump was not on. In February 2014, the third OEM technician noticed that the assembly of the bathroom floor heating was wrong. At the same time, he noticed (ok) that the main pump of the floor heating had been off since the original assembly one and a half year ago. The wrong connection prevented the sensor and the adjusting valve working properly. The bathroom was still cold. By moving the sensor as far as possible from the valve I managed to get this circuit to function.

In September 2014 I called the moral seller of the equipment, the person from OEM management who, with his charisma, had sold the equipment to me back in March 2012. The fourth OEM technician came on September. He understood the problems well. I got an offer from him for a buffer container, the fixing of the wrong connection and a promise that another dealer chosen by them will contact me. I accepted the offer. Nothing happened. In December 2014 I informed the OEM about this.

In January 2015 a person from the second dealer contacted and we agreed to revert this after winter. In April 2015 we agreed on how to proceed. For a month, I asked for a plan and a drawing from him, in vain. The hectic time had prevented him from doing his job. After a half year, in November 2015 I contacted the OEM who promised to take care of this.

I informed the dealer what I wanted from the system and asked him to make an assembly drawing and a list of needed devices. A couple of months passed, again. In January 2016, I called the dealer’s representative, who said that he had not enough knowledge to make a plan or a drawing. He promised to ask for help from the OEM. I waited for a month, again, until I wrote an article on a newspaper.

Somebody at the OEM had deduced from the article that I was their customer. This info reached the dealer, as well. Nothing happened. In April 2016, I called the dealer. An unknown person to me, the owner- manager, promised to take care of my project. Nothing happened. One month later, I tried to call the contact person at OEM. I left a message to him.

Nothing happened. Three weeks later, I left a message relating to several matters, one being this heating system problem, to the person in the management.

After this message in June the OEM contact person visited, asked R&D unit to make an assembly drawing, which I received later. We also booked a seven-day time lot for assembly. He promised that the dealer would fix the date with me. After checking the drawing with my neighbor, I sent my acceptance and the list of necessary control sensors and devices. In the early August, the OEM notified me about the assembly. I did not receive any info about the coming assembly from the dealer. In this situation, I thought that the assembly would start on first day of suggested time lot. Nothing happened. After informing the OEM, the dealer called and the date was fixed.

The dealer’s technician had a wrong assembly drawing. I gave him the right one. The 2012 control unit was not compatible with the 2016 devices. The third OEM technician fetched a compatible device from the warehouse. The electrician from a third firm installed an ordinary thermostat in the bathroom, although the list provided to the OEM had a dampproof one. In the early September, the heating did not function.

During a phone call to the third OEM technician I could not fix the problem. The house was without heating during my twoweek trip. The fifth OEM technician found that two thermostats had been connected to wrong heating circuits. Thermostats were switched to the right circuits. The heating was on and the house was warm. However, I could not find the bathroom circuit in the remote controller. It has not been set there. During a phone call with the fifth OEM technician, I could fix this last? problem.

What went wrong? How to improve performance?

3.3. Bath room repair

The bathrooms are usually at least in old flats or houses very small. The small size asks for a proper repair design. Every centimetre should be used. In our case the installation of the waste water outlet pipe on the middle of the space of the washing machine (not in the empty lots of the space of toilet seat) took the wasching machine 8 centimetre closer to the sink. Every morning you feel in your feet the machine. The heating unit was without the thermostat.

In the summer time the bathroom was extremely hot. A comprehensive view of the renovation of the bathroom was missing. The safety aspect is very important in electrical installations. However, it should not be the only design criteria. The design should take in the account also the customer experience while using the flat after renovation.

Usually in bathroom repairs the design focus is solely on bathroom. In this case, necessary sockets (loading mobile phones, laptops, etc., light for a mirror lamp etc.) in the hall through which electricity wiring was taken anyway could have been installed. I have seen several halls which missed sockets after the bathroom repair. Kitchen needed also sockets; easily they could have been installed since kitchen shared the wall with bathroom. Moreover, the extra switchboard took the place of an important piece of furniture, the chair, to be used while phoning. The switchboard could have been installed up just under the ceiling.

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3.4. Chimney cover

A chimney cover keeps precipitation from entering the chimney flue and protects the inside of the chimney. It was made of two steel plates (one glides inside the other one), which gives the adjustable length. The width is adjusted by placing the feet of the cover according to the collar of the chimney. The long rods tighten the feet of the cover against the collar. The cover is relative simple to install if one has enough rods, bots and nuts (Figure 2).

While assembling the chimney cover the package lacked about twelve dip-zinced 8 mm nuts. Very seldom there is in a private house that many such bolts. It was the last the last day of my stay in that house that time. The way to the nearest hardware store was 15 kms. The daylight was disappearing, as well. Everything was against me. I was lucky to find several equipment in the garage which had 8 mm bolts. I managed to get the missing ones.

Figure 2. Assembling the chimney cover [Photo: Olavi Uusitalo].
Figure 2. Assembling the chimney cover [Photo: Olavi Uusitalo].

4. Conclusion

The balcony and terrace glazing is one example from the glass processing business. What is the use of balcony or terrace. Is it for yearround use? What is expected from glazing. It prevents dust, dirt, wind and rain from reaching the balcony or terrace, protects terrace structures and units as well as suppresses noise. Glazed balconies terraces add safety and comfort to private- as well as apartment houses.

In apartment houses the width of balconies increased in the 1908s so that a balcony can be used as an extra room. Every terrace should be planned well. It is not only glazing. What else than glazing can be the unidentified needs to increase the comfort of the uses? Is electricity needed for radios, lights, laptops, tablets or heating? Where should sockets be assembled to avoid the use of loose cables? Can you use the glazed balcony for heating purposes (intake of the air to the heating system)?

What can get from the cases. In the first one the receptionist in the hotel understood at once the traveller’s situation solve the troubles. Supposedly she had been in this kind of situation earlier i.e. she had prototyped it. Anyway, a great user experience since I keep talking on it after 20 years. In the second case, nobody was interested either in the user experience or a comprehensive picture of the delivery (not even after three years). The OEM did not have CRM. I doubt whether it would have helped.

According to Pepsi design thinking helps the co-operation in the value chain. It may have helped also in the second case to improve communication, to avoid noncompatible components and to create a comprehensive picture of the delivery. In bathroom repair the design thinking process could have helped. First, to figure out what are needs of people in the 2010s? Second, a visit to the flat (=prototyping) see the most important aspect: the save of space both in the hall and bathroom.

The user would have paid extra for having the waste water outlet giving room for washing machine and the extra switchboard for the chair. The user lives with these “mistakes” for the next 20 years. In the last case, the manufacturer blamed the subcontractor for the fault. Then I realized how important it is for a manufacturer to know the worstcase scenario if something is missing from the delivery. It should have been prototyped together with the subcontractor, which would have made the packer emphatic for the end user and focused to put all necessary bolts in the package.

These matters hopefully help to understand the power of design thinking in small things within SMEs. Design thinking is not only for large firms. It helps to get out form the tunnel vision of the business. What else for instance the glazing of terrace can give for the user. It also helps to when a process (for instance delivery) sucks and enables quick action to fix it. Design thinking helps people and organizations cut through complexity. It’s great for innovation. It works extremely well for imagining the future. “Design thinking is an essential tool for simplifying and humanizing. It can’t be extra; it needs to be a core competence”. [1].


[1] Kolko, J. “Design Thinking Comes of Age The approach, once used primarily in product design, is now infusing corporate culture”, Harvard Business Review, September, 66-71, 2015.
[2] Yoo, Y and Kim, K. “How Samsung Became became a Design Powerhouse”, Harvard Business Review, September, 72-78, 2015.
[3] Brown, T. and Martin, R. “Design for Action How to use design thinking to make great things actually happen”, Harvard Business Review, September, 56-64, 2015.
[4] Ignatius, A. “Spotlight Interview How Indra Nooyi Turned Design Thinking into Strategy”, Harvard Business Review, September, 80-85, 2015.
[5] Vianna, M, Vianna, Y., Adler, I. K., Lucena, B. and Russo, B. “Design Thinking Business Innovation”, MJV Press, 2011. 

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