The relationship between design thinking and lean thinking

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 12-02-15

Design thinking is a concept that is as hard to pin down and define singularly as it is with lean. But the two have collided and converged as people look for new ideas to solve their most challenging problems and inspire the most insightful thinking.

Both practices are meant to be collaborative, creative, and meant to explore how things work through study and experimentation. They both leverage visual tools and systems thinking.

When you build a process map, what is the objective? It is to build a common understanding of the current state of a process. I don’t really care which tool you use, as long as your efforts are taking you closer to that objective. Sometimes, the traditional tools for process mapping are insufficient, often because you are working at a broader systematic level.

Here is a TED talk titled Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast.

The video talks about nodes and links. This is similar to language many in the lean community use of activities, connections, and flows. Nodes are activities, where the work happens. Links are connections, which is how different nodes relate to one another. The concepts are entirely the same, just some different words.

As Tom Wujec says in the video:

There’s a visual revolution that’s taking place as more organizations are addressing their wicked problems by collaboratively drawing them out. And I’m convinced that those who see their world as movable nodes and links really have an edge.


So if you’re approach to lean is dogmatic, and doesn’t include tools from sources other than Toyota, then ignore this entire post. But if you practice a principle-based approach to lean, and seek tools and methods from anywhere than help you enable those principles, then spend a little time exploring the world of design thinking. It will expand your perspective, and likely, your effectiveness.