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Promoting business agility at Ford 

Successful companies want to create an adaptive - agile - organisation. What does business agility look like at Ford?

Successful companies want to create an adaptive - agile - organisation. Criteria such as agility are vital to the growth and sustainability of any business. But what is business agility and how can it be cultivated within an organisation? 

Background on business agility 

Ford is in the midst of the most significant change in the transport industry - responding to changing commuting and travel patterns, and the need to equip vehicles with increasingly intelligent features. In addition, the self-driving car market needs to perform at a pace to match or, better still, overtake its competitors.

Ford's human-centred design laboratory 

D-Ford is a Human-Centred Design (HCD) laboratory that represents the interests and needs of users, customers, employees and business partners within Ford. The laboratory uses human-centred research at all stages of the design process to discover hidden opportunities and new perspectives.  This so-called HCD thinking is also called design thinking.  

For those who are not familiar with the term design thinking, the Interaction Design Foundation has defined it as follows: "Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving problems. It is useful for tackling ill-defined, unknown or complex problems. In design thinking, we understand the human needs involved, put them into a human-centred context, brainstorm solutions using brainstorming, and test prototypes in practice. According to Stanford's Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design, the five stages of Design Thinking are: empathise, define (the problem), ideate, prototype and test.”

Why focus on HCD?  

Many organisations lack the tools and processes to enable business agility. Although the term sounds like a focus on aesthetics, design thinking can solve many problems. D-Ford wants to help Ford's corporate teams use design thinking principles to solve critical challenges, a cornerstone of business agility. To this end, Ford has established five D-Ford labs around the world - in Detroit, London, Melbourne, Palo Alto and Shanghai. These four labs are designed to embed four problem-solving mindsets into Ford's overall culture, including curiosity, optimism, empathy and collaboration.

The human-centred design process at D-Ford 

D-Ford's global priorities focus on three main areas: 

1. Helping teams across the company to develop empathy for current and future customers. 

2. Applying people-centred planning methods to identify opportunities and develop strategies.  

3. Building confidence and agility in business decisions through early and rapid field testing.


But D-Ford is not an island. It helps the company to create business agility by teaching the whole organisation to experiment with different tools and methods.  An important part of D-Ford's mission is to help everyone at Ford learn and adopt new tools to improve the way the company works. 


It works with different disciplines within the organisation (such as marketing, engineering and human resources) to support the understanding of user needs and the practical testing of assumptions. And it makes this thinking available to all through a range of educational programmes. 

Progress requires companies to move from theoretical learning to practical application, where employees incorporate HCD into any type of challenge the company faces. D-Ford works with teams across the organisation to test concepts, prototype and re-think designs based on user feedback.  

If successful, D-Ford's HCD principles will improve Ford's agility and overall ability to become an adaptive company.


Will it work? Will there be business agility? 

Ford Motor Company has more than a century of history, so it is not easy to create an agile culture within the company. But there are important signs that the move to HCD has started this process.  

A good example: Ford went from idea to execution in 72 hours in its application of the manufacturing process for face shields for healthcare workers. That 72 hours included designing, testing and developing a prototype face shield with guidance from hospital workers. It also involved sourcing suppliers and selecting available materials that could be used to mass-produce the personal protective equipment


People as the key to people-centred design

A Lopez Research egy korábbi kutatásában megfogalmazta, hogy a vállalatoknak "Egy nap az életben" tanulmányokat kell készíteniük az ügyfelekről és az alkalmazottakról egyaránt.

In a previous study, Lopez Research stated that companies should conduct "A Day in the Life" studies of both customers and employees. A "Day in the Life" is a type of ethnographic research in which the researcher follows and observes a user over a typical day, week or month. The purpose of this activity is for the researcher to understand the routine and typical activities of the user that the user performs out of sheer habit and those that the user performs unconsciously. This type of HCD technique helps Ford create better products by combining tools such as customer diaries and field research. The fruits of this work can be seen in the latest edition of the Ford F150 truck.

Ford has spent thousands of hours with potential customers who are passionate about using a tool, such as a truck, in their everyday lives. Ford spent a lot of time observing customer behaviour, as this reveals hidden insights and unconscious patterns of behaviour that would not surface during interviews.  

During HCD's "A Day in the Life" research, Ford discovered that truck owners often sleep in their vehicles, frequently travel with generators and other electrical appliances, and use the truck interior as an office. These discoveries prompted the automaker to develop new flat-floor seats and to install power outlets on the flatbed deck. In order to make the driver's interior cabin more flexible, Ford has designed the gearshift to be a flat surface for the driver to place a laptop, have lunch or even lay out blueprints.

To make field research truly effective, the company needed to set up a cross-functional research team. A cross-functional team helped all the teams within the manufacturing process (design, manufacturing, marketing, etc.) to understand the requirements and share insights on what it takes to deliver the right value at the right cost.

Yet even field research had to be agile. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not easy for Ford to do field research. To fill in the gaps, it used research tools such as online diaries where individuals could share comments with photos and videos. After all, it's not just a matter of showing people a prototype or taking them out in the field. It is also important to listen to how individuals talk about an idea, how they can imagine it in their own daily lives.

Five tips from Ford to create business agility 

  1. Look for opportunities to innovatively reimagine existing assets. Neither to increase innovation nor to increase efficiency, organisations don't necessarily need to invent entirely new things. They need to build on current market knowledge, but look at the challenges from a different perspective. For example, an open source (free or open source software (FLOSS) is computer software that can be freely used, copied, distributed, studied and modified) strategy helps companies to get their products to market faster and to focus their development resources on building new areas of business value.
  2. HCD is not limited to creating customer-friendly products and services. Ford has used these principles to rethink maternity leave and hybrid working. Ford also wanted to create a culture where sharing individual opinions is part of the organisational culture. For example, after designing a blueprint for maternity leave and hybrid working, the company published it so that other companies could use it. This echoes the concept of open source ideas.
  3. Look outside your company and industry for more inspiration. D-Ford also looked at how other companies are practicing, applying and scaling design thinking, because regardless of industry, every organization can learn from the strategies of the bests.
  4. Use HCD to change organisational mindsets. Businesses are already transforming their processes to be ready to "take off" in a post-epidemic world. This is an opportunity to use HCD to rethink how your organisation should work. HCD requires companies to define a question, conduct research, and use the insights gathered to create and prototype small projects. Agile design is often used in IT, but not necessarily applied to the way an organisation works. HCD requires precisely that change be viewed as a set of smaller goals that can lead to broader transformation.
  5. Build in reflection times. Even if your organisation has been on a certain path for a while, your company may need a turnaround. Rather than seeing this as a failure, it's an opportunity to design the project in a new way. It is important to build in reflective moments to allow for adaptation as the organisation or market evolves.

HCD helps companies create better solutions and decisions. It promotes experimentation, challenging the status quo and rapid adaptation. In short, it is a great way to approach creating an agile culture. Finally, a piece of advice from Ford that we can all benefit from: "It's good to start small and show impact every step of the way. My mantra is: 'Keep evolving'.


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