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How often does the company you work for stop what it’s doing to improve the way it operates? In manufacturing, the Andon lever is a lever anyone can pull that notifies management, maintenance, and other workers of a quality or process problem. Every company could learn from this.

Having worked with both small and large organisations building software for their customers, I’ve seen first hand that you can’t innovate for your customers without innovating the way you work at the same time. It’s an easy argument to make — improve your processes and tools and you’ll make better services and products for your customers. In reality, it’s so much harder to do, especially inside large organisations.

What’s impressive about the Andon lever is that once pulled, everyone is invested in learning how to continuously improve in order to make excellent products for their customers. Made by Many is often brought in to be a metaphorical Andon lever, enabling change and innovation within an org. We use Product Design projects as mechanisms for doing this. Whether you’re like us working with a client or a big organisation trying to change on its own, making sure you consult people at all levels within the business is absolutely vital to success.

The excellent BBC series Back To The Floor did this by placing top level managers or CEOs undercover inside their organisations working with their employees. In the show, when the CEO finished being undercover, he or she immediately made moves to improve the lives of their employees. This was because they’d witnessed the struggles they face first hand. Here are the kinds of things we hear all the time at a grassroots level:

  • I’m not sure who’s done what
  • Using this tool is the bane of my life
  • This task is a waste of my time
  • But we’ve done it like this for years
  • I don’t ever have the time to do that
  • That’s Joe Bloggs’ job in another part of the business

Grassroots problems are a good place to start — and are relatively straight-forward to understand and fix — but they soon highlight larger more systemic issues that need addressing. As we move higher up the hierarchy, we usually find that issues are more about culture, leadership and organisational structures; issues that are usually exponentially harder to change. Here are some common problems we come up against at this level:

  • Siloed business units that don’t communicate well
  • A lack of systems thinking and user centred design
  • Physically separated Technology and Design teams
  • Rigid mindsets & out-dated methodologies for making software
  • Lack of actionable strategies
  • Management styles that disempower employees

Fixing problems at this level will lead to more meaningful and longer-lasting change. It’s slow going though and will nearly always need investment from the C-suite. Here are some practical steps companies can take to start tackling some of these issues.

Take some time out

All our projects start with a bunch of people together in a room talking about their ambitions, hopes and fears for the project ahead. The thing that always surprises me is that, for a lot of the people, it’s the first time they’ve actually sat down together to discuss their business and ask difficult questions. It always feels like group therapy to me.

Getting time from leadership is difficult; stakeholder-wrangling is something you need to plan for early on and overbook. The amount of senior leadership time needs to be proportional to the ambition of the business. So naturally a good place to start is simply discussing what those ambitions are. If leaders really want to change their businesses they need to understand why and how the status quo is going to change inside their company.

Map out core business functions

By this I mean the plotting out the key tasks businesses and customers have to perform in order to get value. Mapping processes with employees forces them to discuss inefficiencies, gaps and pain points with each other. It’s a tool service designers have traditionally created in isolation but we find it works best as a group exercise. It’s an artefact that will force everyone to have really constructive conversations about what works, what doesn’t and where they need to focus.

It can even be used for a product or service that doesn’t exist yet, an artefact for looking into the future and discussing what needs to be built.

Simplify workflow & prove measurable results

Use customer needs and KPIs (qualitatively or quantitatively) as a way of deciding what changes to workflow and tools are going to have the biggest impact on the business. Ways to do this can range from small things like changing the way meetings are structured or how people sit together to re-designing entire workflows or building new tools for your employees.

On a recent project we identified that the quality of content a team was producing didn’t meet customers expectations in any way. Over a week we sat designers, writers and developers together for 2 hours a day, prototyped a streamlined workflow and replaced email with Slack as their communication tool of choice. We convinced the business that this way of working was worth investing in longer term by playing back customers positive reactions on the improved content.

Another example is when we identified that “time to publish” was everything for ITV News so we worked to drive it down. We focused on improving the journalists’ publishing tools and removed any unnecessary steps in order to put something live. This allowed ITV to publish breaking news faster than any of its competitors with no increase in journalistic headcount and drove a 2000% increase in traffic over 4 years.

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It’s only by taking a user centred design and systems thinking approach to making software will a company be able to demonstrate the operational and cultural ways you need to change to support it.

So stop. Pull the Andon lever. Take some time to think about your business and the way it works. The processes, the tools and where the opportunities lie for positive improvement.

Tom Harding

Tom Harding

I help organisations conceive and build successful processes, teams, products and businesses. As Head of Design at Made by Many I collaborate with clients to set product visions & strategies, design & test interfaces, launch new products, and build happy teams.



I’ve worked with organisations all over the world such as Microsoft, Spotify, Nike, Gap, V&A, Colgate, ITV, BBC, Amnesty International, NHS and TED to name just a few.

The best way to think is by making.

@thomascharding

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