Design Thinking at GF: Interview with Lea Im Obersteg

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“I see my role as a bridge-builder who strengthens cross-functional collaboration to drive innovation.”

“Design Thinking helps us to continuously involve the customer into our innovation process,” says Lea Im Obersteg. She has been Design Thinking Champion at GF since 2018. Through her role and with the help of Design Thinking, GF aims to strengthen its innovation capabilities and customer centricity.

In an interview with Changement magazine, Lea Im Obersteg explains what makes her work special.

First, a little background: Why is innovation important for GF?

As a Swiss industrial company, we at GF have to set ourselves apart from the competition through added value and innovative solutions for our customers. GF’s Corporate Management launched Design Thinking in 2016 as a strategic initiative to strengthen our innovative power. The systematic, iterative and collaborative approach helps us at GF to identify the needs of our customers at an early stage and develop innovative solutions on this basis. At GF, we also see Design Thinking as a mindset, as by focusing on customer needs, all GF employees can contribute to the organization’s ability to innovate.

Why is GF counting on Design Thinking to promote innovation?

Design Thinking helps us to continuously involve the customer along our innovation process. Even before determining technological feasibility or financial attractiveness, a Design Thinking project starts with understanding the challenges and problems of our customers. To ensure we are on the right track, we test initial ideas based on the principle of “fail fast to succeed sooner”: We want to make mistakes early on and learn from them to be successful faster. For example, an initial prototype made of cardboard can provide valuable insights. We observe the reactions to the prototype and the handling, and derive hints that flow into the development of our solutions.

“We want to make mistakes early on and learn from them to be successful faster.”

What does the role of Design Thinking Champion involve?

As Design Thinking Champion, I provide support for Design Thinking projects or help to build up knowledge through trainings. True to the motto “Do good and talk about it,” we would like to give our colleagues the opportunity to exchange their experiences in a community. I see my role as a bridge-builder who strengthens cross-functional collaboration to drive innovation. Our core team works closely with the teams from all three divisions, and together we test new ways of collaboration. In my daily work, I notice that openness to change is not a generational or age-related issue. People who have worked at GF for more than 20 years are enthusiastic about the new way of working. I see intrinsic motivation as a major driver of innovation.

What qualities do you need for this type of role?

Having an open mind and being curious about different people and situations certainly helps. Last year for example, I held my first Design Thinking training in China. As my mother comes from Taiwan, my understanding of the culture meant I was able to deal with the needs and questions in depth and learn a lot from my colleagues myself. Before traveling to China, however, I had to pick up the relevant Chinese vocabulary and terminology such as “process improvement” and “innovation excellence”!

What makes the role particularly enjoyable?

I like the fact that every week is different. It could involve us holding an internal training over several days or providing support for customer interviews with water supply companies. Working with inspiring people from all over the world is also something special. My role provides me with the opportunity to bring colleagues from Sweden or India together with those from Sissach or America to create synergies. In this case, I also use the Design Thinking approach. Testing formats early on and learning from others is my daily goal.

Looking to the future, what will a Design Thinking Champion do in 20 years’ time?

Ideally, my role will no longer exist in its current form. When the mindset of Design Thinking has become part of the company’s DNA, we as a team will have carried out our work and will be able to devote ourselves to new, unforeseeable challenges..

This interview was published on April 28, 2019 in special issue 03 Innovation 2019 of the Changement magazine. 


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Design Thinking in brief

Design Thinking is an innovation method developed by Stanford University and the design agency IDEO. Teams with different professional backgrounds work along a defined process in iterative loops. The focus here is on the challenges and needs of the user, who is initially intensively interviewed and observed. Prototypes are then made available to the user as early as possible so that their feedback can be taken into account during further development.

Design Thinking Training at GF Casting Solutions in Suzhou, China Training Design Thinking GFCS