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The Journal

How Design is Driving Ford to Reimagine What a Car Company Can Be

8 minute read

On a warm spring day in Dearborn, Michigan, where Ford Motor Company has its world headquarters, our team met up with some of Ford’s senior leadership. It’s a visit we’ve made regularly during the 15 years IDEO has worked with the century-old carmaker.

On that day, they pulled us into a room that resembled a basketball court. Wide, open decks were marked by signs and little flags identifying team workspaces: Purchasing Boulevard, Operations Corridor, and Design Central. The walls of the space were adorned with customers stories, insights, and frameworks that had been collected during design research and now pointed toward new opportunities. At the center of the room sat a new kind of prototype of a vehicle, which had been the focus of a startup-style development team made up of members of purchasing, HR, legal, design, accounting and more. The process of creating the low-fidelity prototype had been entirely new for this cross-functional team—defined by collaboration and experimentation—but the prototype that now appeared before us proved the value of their approach.

This was just one of dozens of war-rooms now filling the buildings of Ford's Dearborn campus, and also in Ford’s campuses around the world. This new kind of problem solving and rapid prototyping were new to the greater Ford team. And while the IDEO team had been alongside Ford through many projects, we had not touched this prototype.

When developing a new vehicle, defining the concept is a significant investment in time and resources. Using this approach, the team achieved a massive reduction in design development time, in turn reducing cost to the company and accelerating the time to market. It was a light-bulb moment for us. We suddenly saw that a comprehensive organizational change was in motion here—design thinking now lived in Ford’s DNA and they were taking it forward.

Over many years of deep collaboration with designers at Ford, we’ve worked primarily on specific projects or initiatives, all the while broadening our points of connection within the company. Early on, the IDEO team functioned like a pirate brigade on the edge of the business, with a mandate to run fast and break the rules—but you can’t scale that up.

Where scale has been achieved is in the aggregate, as numerous individual projects have exposed more and more members of Ford to the power of human-centered design. Although we did not do the work to create some of the vehicle prototypes we viewed that spring day, our deep collaboration with Ford over many years has helped enable the organization to shift its way of working, and that may be the greatest and most lasting success of our partnership. Together, we’ve moved with Ford toward the precipice of becoming a new kind of company, suited to lead not just auto manufacturing, but a radical revolution in mobility.

Mapping the entire span of our time with Ford, it’s clear that the way we’ve been working is its own kind of strategy. Design thinking has been permeating the organization system-wide, often spearheaded by inspired employees eager to explore new ways of working. At its best, design enables people to tackle complex, systemic challenges. Within a large organization, the work isn’t so much about applying a process, but helping the company itself improve its resilience and uptake of new ideas. We can push the edge by asking tough questions about what people—the customers or users of their products and services—really want, and figuring out what needs to change in order to fulfill those desires.

That unifying anchor point during this shift has been Jim Hackett, who took over as Ford’s CEO in 2017. Hackett came from Steelcase, a world-class furniture company that has been instrumental in applying design to shape the future of work. It was at Steelcase where Hackett first worked with IDEO, and through that collaboration cultivated an approach to business that put the customer at the center, evolving the company from simply a furniture manufacturer to a hub of leadership in the changing workplace landscape. When he came to Ford, he brought this human-centered approach with him.

The whole purpose of a business, ultimately, is to meet a customer’s need. Many legacy businesses that have been operating decades or centuries find themselves with very established business models. They know how to make money through those methods. But the consequence of entrenched models is that everything drives toward efficiencies and returns. If you live in that mode, you lose your customer. It’s easy to say legacy companies need to change the lens through which they’re viewing and operating their business; it is everything to get it done well.

During his tenure, Hackett has built an ecosystem that enables design to spread from the core innovation teams out to all corners of the more than 190,000-person organization. Creating change is about convincing networks of people to make different choices, which means unconvincing them of their current behaviors and helping seed the potential of doing things differently. By helping them align in new ways around ideas, they gain the bravery to make choices that may not be supported by their corporate or cultural DNA.

In an effort to be more intentional and comprehensive with this diffusion of ideas, Ford is moving forward with two primary initiatives: First, a global design lab network called D-Ford, with teams around the world focusing not on products, but on customers. And second, a robust, enterprise-wide learning program to give everyone at Ford access to the design tools and skill sets that the collaborative team of Ford and IDEO spent years refining together. With these two efforts in operation, design thinking can be disseminated from the inside out, spreading throughout the organization.

Ford’s global innovation labs represent the design-intensive core of the company. The D-Ford studios are housed in Detroit, London, Palo Alto, and Shanghai. In each, a nimble group of design practitioners gets their hands dirty iterating, fixing, and prototyping possibilities for the next era of mobility.

To be human-centered doesn’t just mean to put humans at the center of the design problem, but to put humans at the center of the design solution and empower them in different ways. The D-Ford Labs, and the associated learning program, are creating a radically new way of working that is accelerating Ford's evolution. It's not IDEO, it's not Ford, it's a third way.

Outside of these hands-on labs, the uptake of design thinking is more variable and sometimes controversial. Thousands of employees cross paths with the small group of radical experimenters so transformation happens more slowly. Communicating the value of design in this broad population requires moving from provocation to persuasion and proof, demonstrating how much leverage design can provide in solving problems that have seemed intractable through more conventional approaches.

Design requires being on the ground with the people who will use and experience any new offerings from Ford, but it also means reaching across aisles and opening dialogues where previously deep, daily collaboration has been unheard of.

This never would have happened had they not felt invited into the room to help with the design. Having cross-functional teams from engineering, design, purchasing and more, has been a breakthrough, because they gain empathy and respect for each other’s practices and work together, rather than sitting in silos that tend to block each other’s effort.

Perhaps one of the clearest proof points for Ford’s new way of working is the groundbreaking, all-electric SUV Mustang Mach-E, which was unveiled in Los Angeles late last month. The Mustang Mach-E came to life just a few blocks away from Henry Ford’s first factory in Detroit, through a development process grounded in human-centered design, concentrated entirely on customer needs and desires.

The development team, called Team Edison, was made up of broad expertise, including members leading the design, charging strategy, infotainment, and marketing of electric vehicles. Thanks to the company-wide shift toward human-centered design, Team Edison was truly able to exercise creative license and operate in a different way. The Mustang Mach-E represents change not only within Ford, but worldwide. Customer outlooks and desires are evolving, and by listening to what’s true for their user, the team created a vehicle that aligns with the changing world.

While this new mindset is thriving within the walls of the labs, it’s a feat to communicate the nuance and potential of human-centered design to parts of Ford where design itself isn’t necessarily top of mind. Across every level and department, the principles can apply, but putting them in context matters. In order to activate that deeper saturation, Ford has developed an internal learning program that guides employees through the different phases of design thinking. From teams assembling child safety seats in Nanjing, to a Dearborn group researching the nighttime patterns of taxi drivers, to sales representatives in London, Design Thinking at Ford unifies people across the organization around the mission of putting humans at the center of their work.

The learning tools and experience are available to anyone at Ford who wants to better understand design. Practical tools include methods cards that can be applied at intervals in the development process, and videos illustrating how design thinking has come to life at Ford in the past.

Ford believes that all of its employees will benefit from a human-centered perspective, and is making progress in its enterprise-wide effort to create a unique, design-led creative culture.

One of the most exciting aspects of the early learning about design is realizing just how many areas it encompasses. From making autonomous rideshare vehicles to designing an ecosystem of connected services around sustainable transit, human-centered design in particular enables individuals to rethink how they go about their lives and how they look at the world around them.

As a designer, I was always taught it’s valuable to be able to say, I designed thatit’s on a shelf somewhere. Now we’re getting to a moment when it’s more valuable to create impact and influence rather than an object in space. We’re beginning to see new ways to measure impact, and better ways to affect change.

If you teach people to question what they do, and to collaborate and take cues from others with diverse skills, they will learn to change on their own, and the company will follow suit. This is how large-scale transformation happens. This radically different approach is what will determine the future of Ford.

Illustrations by Johan Papin

  • Iain Roberts

    Partner and Chief Operating Officer
    As COO of IDEO, Iain helps the company navigate organizational complexity and works to give designers the creative agency to make a positive impact in the world. He applies this mindset to IDEO’s increasingly divergent business models, including multiple consulting arms across the globe and a number of new product and service engagement models.
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