How to Employ Design Thinking for Smarter Facilities Management

Kayla Naab
October 7, 2019

Design Thinking is half-philosophy, half-recipe. It is a method for approaching and solving problems, both mentally and actionably. For Facilities Managers, solving problems is a constant in their day-to-day. They must be agile, decisive, and creative in their approach. If you manage a workspace or facility, you have probably honed your approach to creating something new in the space - an installation, event, or new workflow. With elements of design thinking, you can automate this process to turn “where do I even start?” into “Let’s begin at the beginning.”

Here’s what you need to know: 

Design Thinking Principles and Phases

Elements of Design Thinking are extrapolated, repurposed, and modified to fit industries from architecture and engineering to graphic design and web development, but the core remains the same. Design Thinking was built on a foundation of 4 core principles which are the “philosophy” part of the method. For best results with Design Thinking, Facilities Managers will accept and embody these core values. However, Design Thinking isn’t just an abstract concept - it’s also a framework. The 5 phases of a Design Thinking workflow are also laid out below, for easy reference. 

The 4 Design Thinking Principles

1. Be human 

Make sure that the solutions you’re implementing in your facility are fit for humans. Converse with other humans to test the perceptions and limits of an idea. Make sure to solve problems socially in a way that benefits the collective. 

2. Allow for ambiguity

Part of drafting new ideas for a solution to a problem or a creative new endeavor is pure open-mindedness. No idea is too lofty, too small, or too wild to be considered. From a scientific standpoint, all solutions are just experiments. When you give yourself the space to be wrong, and to elicit feedback, you become a better Facilities Manager.

3. Reinvent that wheel

Design Thinkers believe that “all design is redesign” -- this means you can borrow from old ideas and approaches to develop any and all new technologies, concepts, or ideas. Human needs don’t change, even as technology and societal constructs do. 

4. Make it tangible

Without action, ideas are just entertainment. In order to really change the look, feel, and function of the Facilities you manage, you’ll need to create a prototype of your solution, test a theory, or put ideas into practice. 

The 5 Phases of Design Thinking 

1. Empathize

This is a critical first step that many people miss when employing Design Thinking. By making Facilities Management decisions - or any professional decision - through the lens of the people it affects, you’ll become more adept at anticipating the ways in which your ideas won’t work, and arriving at better outcomes sooner. Rather than making assumptions about what your colleagues or teams want, ask. 

2. Define

Surprisingly, many people try to solve problems before they’re clear on the problem itself, solutions that have been tried in the past, and the context in which the problem exists. For example, someone who wants to see their employees collaborate more might make a push for open-seating without realizing that an open office plan had failed previously. This doesn’t mean this type of plan can’t work in the future, but with this context and data, it can be tried again with solutions in place for avoidable problems. Take time to define the problem and all of its context, as well as the barriers and subproblems you might encounter. 

3. Ideate

This is where the open-mindedness and lack of scrutiny come into play. This is where you turn off your judgement, source input from others, and take down ideas en masse. Write down the impossible, the improbable, and the obvious. Don’t poke holes in any ideas unless you’ve already taken 10 or more. Once you have a high quantity of ideas, scrutinize them, mesh them together, and explore the possibilities with each one. 

4. Prototype

Once you have an idea - or three or four - that you can feasibly and affordably put into action, it’s time to move away from the whiteboard and get physical. Move that equipment. Rearrange that schedule. Reconsider those vendors. Do what you came to do. If you’re creating something new, it’s time to make a model and put it to work. If you’re retooling an old process, now’s the time to activate the change. 

5. Test and Revise

Many of us see a plausible solution to a problem, implement it, and - as long as nothing backfires - we assume it’s all good. As a Facilities Manager, however, you’re a scholar of data. You need to see the results of your work to know what’s working. Now that you’ve implemented your solution, consider which metrics to study in order to determine the effectiveness of your solution. Gather that data over a period of time, document, and then ask yourself - and others - whether or not the solution in place is the best one. 

What Problems Do Facilities Managers Solve?

Now that you have a clearer understanding of what Design Thinking is and how it pertains to general professional problem-solving, you might have more questions than answers. How does Design Thinking help Facilities Managers specifically? For what types of facility management problems would Design Thinking be relevant?

Here are a few: 

  • Vendor assignment and management
  • Vendor payment and accounts payable for the facility 
  • Safety concerns 
  • Security concerns
  • Building design 
  • Physical workspaces
  • Human resources problems 
  • Collaboration and teamwork problems
  • Compliance and review 
  • Building maintenance
  • Resource Lifecycle breakdown 
  • Cost Control 
  • Record-keeping and Asset Management
  • Employee supervision and training
  • Time Management
  • Implementation of Technology

A Case Study in Effective Design Thinking for Facilities Managers

Perhaps you’d like to see Design Thinking in practice at a workplace just like yours. Consider this example: 

The Problem: 

Jessica is a Facilities Manager for a chain of hospitals. The nurse triage stations in one facility routinely experienced faulty technology and IT breakdowns. This is a huge issue as patient data was being lost or left unsecured, patient triage and care were slower, and nurses were frustrated. Jessica had already spoken with IT and they wouldn’t be addressing the issue for another 6 to 8 weeks. Jessica needed a workaround that would operate within budget and let the nurses stations operate more effectively. 

Working the Steps:

1. Empathize

Jessica went directly to the facility in question and asked the nurses questions. She asked questions of a few select patients who had experienced delays or confusion. She also spoke with an IT representative. It was Jessica’s aim to gather as much data as possible.

2. Define

Jessica needed context. She gathered usage data from the faulty workstations over the last 3 months, considered what solutions had already been tried, and worked out the available budget.

3. Ideate

Jessica began an open-ended brainstorm for ideas to solve this problem. She wrote down less-feasible ideas like “replace 35 computers across 7 floors of the hospital tomorrow” and more feasible ideas like “call the Manufacturer’s tech support line”. After a day of brainstorming and talking with colleagues, Jessica had written down 13 possible paths to resolution.

4. Prototype

Jessica’s best idea came after speaking with the asset management team for the hospital. She decided to borrow 14 iPads from departments who weren’t using them - most were in storage - and provide two to each station. While 2 iPads aren’t necessarily more efficient than 5 laptops, they each accessed the patient database faster and more effectively than their desktop counterparts. 

5. Test and Revise

For the last four weeks, Jessica has seen an uptick in productivity and morale in the Nurses’ stations. She has defined clear metrics to measure productivity and a survey to test the morale and satisfaction of the RNs who work at each station.

With Design Thinking in her tool belt, Jessica has made a big impact on the facilities she manages and, most importantly, the employees and patients served there. How could you follow her example and apply Design Thinking to a problem you’ve been facing at work? 

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