Approach problem-solving in the workplace with design thinking.

If tried-and-true solutions to problems in the workplace are leading you down the same road—or in circles—try approaching them with design thinking. This methodology takes a solution-based approach and has been seen as useful for tackling complex problems that are either ill-defined or unknown.

The standout element of design thinking is its focus on understanding the human needs involved, reframing the problem in a human-centric way, emphasizing solutions through brainstorming sessions and encouraging a hands-on approach to testing the proposed solutions. 

Design thinking is  comprised of five stages:

1 Empathize. To empathize with the problem at hand, practice observing, engaging and empathizing with people most affected by the problem, and become immersed in the environment in which the problem exists or is felt most strongly. Empathy allows leaders and design thinkers to set aside their assumptions and gain insight into the needs of others.

2 Define The Problem. Use the information gathered in the empathize phase to define the problem in the context of those who are most affected by the problem and any suggested solution. For example, instead of framing the problem as, “We need to reduce safety violations among our warehouse staff,” frame the problem this way: “Our warehouse staff are valuable members of the team who deserve to work in a safe environment.”

3 Ideate. The ideate stage is the fertile field where solution seeds can be planted. Thinking outside the box should be encouraged, as well as strategies for ideation such as Brainstorm, Worst Possible Idea and SCAMPER—an activity-based thinking process that consists of seven techniques (substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to other use, eliminate, reverse) designed to produce creative solutions. 

4 Prototype. Prototypes—scaled-down, inexpensive versions of problem scenarios—become the testing ground for proposed solutions. Prototypes may be shared within the team itself, or with the larger workforce. The goal is to find the best possible solution by acting out these test scenarios, and accept, improve and reexamine, or reject the tested solutions on the basis of user experience.

5 Test. Solutions that make the final cut should undergo rigorous testing; what this looks like will depend upon a company’s individual blueprint, but the goal is to generate results that can be used to redefine the problem and help leaders understand the users, as well as how, when and why solutions are used. This phase does not produce a fixed, permanent solution, but rather one that can be adjusted as necessary.

The process may look linear, but in reality, teams may find that one or more stages will occur simultaneously, and they are not necessarily sequential. Flexibility is the hallmark of this strategy, which should lead to solutions that put people first. 

The Human Touch

Despite the growing use of robotics, employees continue to fill crucial gaps in business automation.

Some days we just want to live in George Jetson’s world, where robots do everything for us. Other days we wish we were on Walden Pond, living off the land in rough splendor. Businesses are seeking a balance between automating business processes and maintaining a strong human component to work.

Even futurist Elon Musk sees the value in human performance. While the Silicon Valley tech giant makes a living sending unmanned rockets into space and pursuing driverless automobile technology, he acknowledges that there are some things robots just can’t do as well as people—which is why he removed robots from portions of Tesla production this year.

At Cimpress, parent company of industry distributor Vistaprint, automation is balanced with human intervention according to a few basic principles. First, deciding when and where to apply automation in its production process is based on cost, safety, operational efficiency and customer satisfaction. Second, Cimpress believes that human participation guarantees the application and execution of common sense, big-picture analysis and creativity in processes.

In the Vistaprint plant in Ontario, Canada, for example, teams prepare and ship 60,000 orders on an average day. This number skyrockets to more than 100,000 during peak periods. While automation plays key roles throughout the plant and enables rapid scaling to meet a surge in customer demand, the more than 1,000-member staff also plays a critical role in the creation of the end product.

Areas where human workers outperform robots include managing multiple machines, switching jobs and performing quality checks, and areas where Vistaprint has found automation most helpful are boxing business cards and moving single product orders from product cell to logistics or shipping.

 ASK THE EXPERT: Joanne Homsey, Manager, TeeStyles

Building An Inclusive Workforce

Staten Island, New York-based distributor Teestyles by Lifestyles for the Disabled (PPAI 673127) is a newly launched custom screen-printing operation whose purpose is to give community members with developmental disabilities an opportunity to learn a new skill and participate in the workforce. 

PPB spoke with Joanne Homsey, manager of TeeStyles, about how members of the disabled community can become a successful part of the promotional products industry.

PPB How can companies seek out prospective employees to add to
their workforce?
Homsey The best way is to partner with an organization that looks for opportunities to bring developmentally disabled community members into the workforce. In addition to TeeStyles, Lifestyles for the Disabled also employs individuals in a zoo gift shop and at a café.

PPB What types of employment are best suited for individuals with developmental disabilities?
Homsey It depends on the individual but, in our area, especially—screen printing is a very popular option. How often they can work will depend on the type of benefits they receive. Our main priority is safety in the workplace, making the environment a good place for them to come and train in all aspects of the store. Regardless of the type of work these individuals do, companies should make their safety a priority as well.

PPB  How does a company benefit from hiring employees with disabilities?
Homsey  Seeing how excited they get over their accomplishments is a benefit; it makes all the difference in the world.

PPB  What advice do you have for companies that want to enter into a partnership with an organization like Lifestyles for the Disabled?
Homsey  The only advice I can give is to try it; you’ll be pleasantly surprised. And here at TeeStyles we emphasize our participants’ abilities, not their disabilities. Also, from day one—and I’ve been doing this for 16 years—say ‘thank you.’ It’s so important to give praise to these men and women. 

Gone Fishin’

BURGER KING® Belgium’s out-of-office ad campaign offers condolence prizes for working stiffs.

Have you left your coworkers to slave away at the office while you enjoy some fun in the sun this summer? If so, BURGER KING®  has found a way for you to ease the burn of being left behind. 

The fast-food royal’s Belgium operations have launched a unique out-of-office message promotion that gives working stiffs a taste of the good life. When users create an extended absence message through, a gift voucher for a WHOPPER® or an OREO Shake is automatically generated, to be redeemed by whomever receives the message as an automatic reply. Users are encouraged to be as obnoxious as possible, making the conciliatory coupon that much more appreciated.

To build awareness for the campaign, international press agency Buzzman also created a short film, which can be  viewed at

Cut Through The Noise

How to maintain engagement in a world overflowing with content

If you think the internet will run out of content, think again. In just one minute of the day, Twitter users send 456,000 tweets, Skype users make 154,200 calls, Wikipedia users publish 600 new page edits and YouTube users watch 4,146,600 videos.

It’s doubtful that all of this content is original, but that supposition doesn’t stop users from continuing to generate and consume content in the digital space. So how can you make your content rise above the noise? 

Check out these tips from Forbes contributor Brian Sutter, director of marketing for Wasp Barcode Technologies.

1. Reuse old content. If you can make it fresh for new or returning audiences, you save money and gain traction in one click of the Publish button.

2. Produce more content for the middle and end of the buying journey. Content that supports more than just the buyer-acquisition stage will help brands maintain longevity throughout the cycle.

3. Produce personalized content that users can zero in on.

4. Rely less on text-based content, which takes longer to consume, and incorporate more images and even live video where possible. 

5. Don’t sell. Teach. Content that educates and informs builds more trust among users than straight sales pitches.

Jen Alexander is associate editor of PPB.