Over the past 20 years, design thinking as an innovation approach has received substantial and increasing interest from both practice and academia. Companies have hired Chief Design Officers, trained their employees in design thinking, and acquired entire design firms. Similarly, academic researchers across a substantial variety of fields have tried to identify the successful application of design thinking tools, practices, and mindsets. And yet, this interest and efforts have so far not produced a reliable method in the literature on how to operationally manage design thinking successfully: a search for “design thinking” across the top 10 operations management journals over 30 years returned only three articles.
A major issue behind this problem is the lack of reliable design thinking process measurements. To address this issue, I apply an operations management lens to design thinking and construct a set of literature references across multiple disciplines and domains covering the last 30 years (1992–2022). Building on a simple operations model I expand it in two directions. First, the outcome measurement is stepwise expanded to include not only the design thinking project, but also the design thinker, the team, the organization, and ultimately the society and the environment. Second, I unpack the design thinking process into its phases empathy, synthesis, ideation, and prototyping, and add considerations of the elements of the overall process gestalt and team diversity. For each of these specific aspects of design thinking, I identify the current state of knowledge in the literature and provide suggestions for future research to expand the current frontier.
This analysis produces major insights in two arenas. One insight is that the better measures that are needed for the study of the operations of design thinking processes will have to be more complex by integrating multiple dimensions of process metrics and performance outcomes. To accomplish this will require more interdisciplinary work beyond operations management, including disciplines such as organizational behavior, ethics, psychology, design, engineering, and systems thinking. The second insight suggests that the increasing diffusion of digital tools, especially the rapidly evolving world of data science and artificial intelligence, across innovation work such as design thinking, will reshape many, if not all, of the process steps involved. Both arenas offer fertile ground for future research on design thinking for operations management.
An Operations Management Perspective on Design Thinking provides a map of what is known about mechanisms of design thinking when looking through an operations management lens and identifies areas where knowledge gaps still exist. In applying the operations management lens, the author constructs a simple framework for how to assess progress in design thinking activities. To provide improved design thinking progress measures, the author expands this framework by considering multiple dimensions of these measures in greater detail: the outcomes of an operation and its transformation function. Applying the reference set to these multiple dimensions of the expanded framework identifies contributions from other disciplines that can help explain the conditions under which design thinking operations can be managed successfully and pinpoints unexplained gaps that are worthy of future research.
The monograph first prepares the methodological ground by putting the attempt to search for better design thinking process measures in the context of existing research approaches. The next section summarizes the origins and characteristics of design thinking and provides an overview of the progress measures that have been proposed for design thinking. The monograph then introduces an operations management perspective for design thinking as an innovation production process. The next section expands this perspective by introducing multiple dimensions and finer grained measures and apply this extended framework to the data set from earlier sections to pull together the current understanding of design thinking and to identify future research opportunities. The monograph concludes with some broader reflections.