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Shaping Culture with Service Design

Fail Faster

Episode 375


36 minutes

We are joined by Vijay Chakravarthy, Practice Director, Service Design & Strategy at Philips, to uncover the power of service design in creating better outcomes for patients.

Discover how service design goes beyond product development and empowers organizations to think holistically, drive strategic change, and enhance customer experiences. Gain insights into the challenges and successes of integrating service design concepts into established organizations and learn how personalized offerings and subscription services can transform traditional business models. Tune in for thought-provoking discussions on the intersection of design, strategy, and technology, and discover practical tips for implementing service design principles in your own organization.

Podcast transcript

Vandana: Hi, Vijay. Welcome to the Fail Faster podcast. How are you today?

Vijay: Very well. Thank you for having me. 

Vandana: Absolutely. Let’s dive right into, for our audience first, to give your background to them, to just to, you know, walk us through a five minute of your background, so folks know who we are talking to. 

Vijay: Oh, yeah, sure. I work, I live and work in Seattle, in the United States, and I work at Philips, specifically with the oral healthcare division of Philips. Might be familiar with brands like Sonicare, Philips One, and so on. So and Zoom. So those are some of the brands that fall under my business unit within Philips, where we focus on people have healthy smiles. So so yeah, that’s my team. I work within the design team. 

And I support activities that are more strategic in nature, and very much involved in establishing our first service design practice within the healthcare division. So yeah, I’ve been here for about four years. Okay. Prior to that, I’ve been working, I’ve been in the world of design and innovation for about 18 years or so now, and did my undergraduate studies in industrial design, actually, from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. And since then, I’ve had the chance to live and work in Australia, in Italy, in India, and 13 years or so in the United States now. 

Vandana: Super. How great is that? Like you, you bring a lot of global flavor to this industry. And service design is something that I would love to deep dive with you on, to really see how the execution of that, you know, happens, ground up, and what are some of the benefits that organizations can have, and that’s something kind of a, not everybody’s very used to that, like it is now picking up and people are understanding the intersection of service with technology. So we’d love to deep dive into that, Vijay, to see how did you really start with that, you know, in your role? 

Vijay: Yeah, for me, the very first time I got introduced to service design was when I was doing my undergraduate studies in Australia. We had a, we had like a semester of a program called service design. This was way back, like in the early 2000s. And it was really at its nascent stages. And it really appealed to me because at the time, we were so deep into designing products, understanding shape, form, color, materials, and so on. And so often, we get so excited about the shiny object that we are designing. 

And when I say product, this could be in today’s world, it could be UX, it could be like a digital product or a physical product. But so often, we get so carried away by that, that we forget that really, we’re designing to achieve certain outcomes. So and service design really, at its core, enables us to think outcomes, right. And to maybe further pick on that. You know, you could, when you go into the world of new product development or innovation, you could say, let’s take the case of a dishwasher, right? So you could say, I’m designing the next kitchen dishwasher, then already you have a certain picture in mind, what it means, what it could be and so on. 

But if you rethink that, that challenge and say, hey, we are designing a way for dishes to get washed. And now that broadens your horizons, that broadens how you frame what you’re trying to do, because the outcomes are washed dishes, or clean dishes. And so then, as a team, as a person, as a group, you begin to say, hmm, how can we have clean dishes? Dishes that never get dirty, a service that enables your dishes to be cleaned, I mean, a machine that does it for you, right, all of these ways of thinking through solutions get opened up. 

And fast forwarding from then to the last 10 years or so, more and more organizations today are realizing that in this world of innovation, the challenge is not necessarily the idea. There’s a lot of ideas floating around in organizations today. The challenge is how do we go from idea all the way to execution, right? And on the one hand, thinking through outcomes is so important, because when you begin to get more and more confidence in the idea that’s being worked on, then you go back and check whether or not it’s giving you the outcome you want. 

Dishes really clean, right, and defining clean dishes, right, things like that. And that’s one thing. The other piece that a lot of organizations find themselves in, the kind of situation they find themselves in is that of multiple bakeries on a street. You have three or four bakeries, all of them maybe making croissant or breads and all of those things, baguettes, let’s say, and there are three of them on a street. There’s only so much you can do to make your croissant the very best croissant on that street. 

After a point, everybody else will catch up. What differentiates you on that street, even being a bakery, could be the ambience, could be how you speak to your customers, could be how inviting your space is, could be the kind of music you’re playing there. All of this now becomes part of the offering of how you provide your product. That differentiates, that could be the make or break of how your business runs. And to think through this right from the very beginning of how you develop such products, such offerings, such experiences is so critical. 

It has operational impact. It has implications on where you put your money and how much you spend on what and so on. So more corporations today are in the space where they’re seeing, okay, they were a manufacturer or they’re someone who’s been playing in the traditional field of retail or perhaps a traditional field of B2B with a certain audience, but if they now want to grow their buying, how do they rethink the delivery of their proposition? So those are the kind of things that I’ve had a chance to shift my focus towards from designing products to designing strategy and services. It’s exciting. It’s fun. 

Vandana: Absolutely. And what a great way to kind of marry everything and put it together as a holistic experience. Let’s talk about how you were able to tactically bring in these newer concepts and strategies into Philips with maybe your relationships with the B2B and B2C organizations that Philips has. So how do you bring about the service design concepts into these relationships on a project, let’s say? Let’s walk us through that. 

Vijay: Yeah. That’s a, you know, very often when I speak or when I go on the stage or write, a lot of questions are around, hey, how do you get organizations to listen? Change is difficult. Change is difficult for all of us. If you think about it for a given person to change your way of doing something, it’s already difficult and sticking to it is even harder. And for an organization that is a group of people and making a group of people change how they do things is even harder. And usually, what I’ve realized is a lot of organizations don’t change unless there’s a burning platform. 

Something needs to be going on. So one way I’ve found is, yes, finding those stakeholders that are going to be key for you to drive this change is super critical. So as I got into the organization, I spent some time talking about service design, understanding to whom it actually matters. To which part of the organization does this message, does this initiative or strategy even matter? Because Philips, like many big corporations, is huge and there are good things and bad things, right? So there’s a good thing is that it’s very focused on health care. 

It’s very focused on wanting to achieve good outcomes for our audiences. It’s very focused on quality. And that means there are really stringent rules and processes and procedures around quality. There’s no getting around it. We are classified as a medical device. It’s even harder in many ways. But at the same time, it gives us a lot of, let’s say, confidence when we release something that works. So those were some of the challenges. 

The great part is, as I was able to find the right parts of the organization that cared about this message, I was able to work with them to see how service design could serve the needs of that part of the organization. And how can we enable them to do better? How can we enable a specific team to show progress? More often than not, design is not something that creates value by itself. Design doesn’t just bring the money in. It has to be produced. Somebody has to make it. 

Somebody has to engineer it, actually put it on the shelf. There’s a lot of downstream activities post-design that could make or break a product. So design is usually always in a supporting role. So recognizing that, it’s still very powerful. But recognizing that and then working with the right people to enable them has been key. And that’s where Philips, you know, initially when I got in at Oral Healthcare, we did not have, you know, we were very much in a traditional sense of a retailer kind of business. 

So if we were to draw our ecosystem of partners, we had, you know, Philips, we would do the R&D work, we would develop a new product, we would find suppliers and all of that. And then we would make a bunch of, you know, be very sure with the numbers and make a bunch of big pallet of products with a bunch of thousand products and then ship them off to a Costco or a Target and the likes of Costcos and Targets across the globe. And that was our operating model. 

It’s not that it’s bad, it’s working quite well. But to go from there to, let’s say, something else, there was a team that’s looking at, so I don’t know, for people who use Sonicare, we have brush heads and we have the handle, as we call it, and the brush heads are something for health reasons, for the sake of keeping up its quality of cleaning, you change it every three months. And the very first thing we came in and when we assessed what part of the business can we show value very quickly, using our thinking, we said, well, there are already people who are buying our toothbrushes and they need to go buy brush heads every three months. 

Why don’t we make it easy for them? It’s in our business interest, it’s in the interest of our consumers. It’s not like we have to go convince them, most people are already doing it, we have to put in the extra effort to go find their brush head, buy it, put it in, and so on. So now, we said, let’s introduce and see how we can develop a subscription service. Online, they sign up, every three months it shows up. Imagine someone with a family of three or five managing brush heads, they go one click, go online, their brush heads show up. The idea was not something that was outlandish, it had just been around. 

How do you achieve that? How do you make an organization that’s so used to sending a thousand products to one address, send one product to one address? Even a small thing like that was a huge task. So developing that backend, developing all the systems that you need to work together to enable everything from payment processing to making sure somebody gets that shipment on time, making sure somebody can change it, track it, eventually, I don’t know, sometimes people by mistake drop their brush heads or lose them. 

So how do you change the frequency of when you order something? So all of this needed to be managed, and it’s part of the experience of owning a Sonic Hair now. That is now up and running. So there were multiple things that needed to be done, like for instance, show the value, show that we have the technology to do that, form the right partnerships if we didn’t have that technology, do some tests, eventually show that this can actually be profitable and needs a team to manage it. 

That’s the hardest thing. It’s one thing to pilot something, but it’s another to do the pilot, show the value, eventually build it up to a phase where there’s a team that can sustain itself thanks to the revenue that’s coming from this channel. So those kind of things are very much strategic, but at the same time, it’s design coming together with strategy, coming together with technology and multiple partners to enable it. 

Vandana: And that’s a very different model, right? You just went from B2B to B2C, right? And then, so do you also think about personalizing the product itself? Because first it’s just Costco or Target, and then all of a sudden you are now managing families with maybe different requirements. So did the product itself grew in different numbers or variations in the product? 

Vijay: In this case, because it was the case of the bakery and we were trying to innovate how the service is offered, the great part is we had a lot of products already. And what we were looking to do was make it convenient for people to get those products. Get it in that. And what we saw eventually was, well, people weren’t just buying brush heads over time. They were wanting to upgrade their product. They wanted to get the next product in line. 

Or maybe they had a kid who now turned out to be five years old and wanted a kid’s product. Or someone who went from being eight years to 13 years, and then this person wanted not a kid’s product. And so on. So that meant you’re not only having somebody be part of your ecosystem for convenience, but also for upgrading how your relationship is with the brand, buying our next product. Similarly, the amazing thing is we are in the space where it’s an evergreen need. 

Right. This is brushing your teeth, cleaning your teeth is so important. It’s a daily activity. And it’s the one thing I enjoy about it, and which is also challenging is the fact that this is multi-generational. Whether right from two years old, all the way up to end of life, typically somebody’s using this. Yeah. So every product we design, the things we offer is something that’s relevant to irrespective of gender or nationality or culture, the relevant product. Now the challenge is how do you drive outcomes of health? How do you drive outcomes of cost reduction and so on? So yeah, so it led to subscription is one example of building the right kind of relationship between the brand and the user group that’s already users in our case. 

But then on the strength of this, I was able to go back and the team was able to go back and say, hey, look, there’s value in thinking this way. Let’s enable someone to have convenience around how they own and use a Sonicare. Okay, what else can we do? And that opened up discussion around, hey, we see this is cool. This is something we can do as an organization. And we said, okay, let’s map our ecosystem. And we said within the world of health, we had dental professionals, we had dentists, we have hygienists, we have people who are insurance companies and so on. 

And slowly, we started expanding from just being a manufacturer and a retailer to adding insurance partners and dental professionals. The last four years have been a whirlwind of trying to find insights around what do dental professionals care about? How can we enable them? They were already recommending our product to patients. Right. Because it’s so, so important to oral care. But how can we now form stronger bonds with dental professionals, develop the right products? Right. 

Maybe even be partner with them in many ways beyond just recommending and selling toothbrushes. And that’s where now there’s a lot of innovation happening in how we work with them to develop new products, how we work with them to make them our ambassadors, how we enable them to drive efficiencies and better relationships between dentists and patients. Right. So things like, it’s funny, as we got into it, one of the things we heard from dentists was, well, you know, we want patients to be coming to us on a regular basis. 

A lot of patients, and this is what we heard from insurance companies too. For those who have insurance, dental insurance usually covers up to two visits, but not everybody goes to their dentist. And when we were looking into reasons behind this, and this is the human part coming in, we realized a lot of people weren’t going to the dentist because of feelings of shame of, you know, you’re an adult, you go there, you get scolded, those kind of things. 

So now the challenge became not just designing a toothbrush, but saying, how can we enable people to be confident that they’re doing the right things and they can go to the dental professional, dentist’s visit without as much shame or without those kind of, with more confidence and care. That’s where we’ve gotten to behavior design, where we are getting people to brush twice a day, two full minutes, you know, those kind of things where, it’s a simple thing, but you know, it gets lost. 

And for those who follow it, sometimes they follow it out of fear, because you’ve been told right from when you were a kid that you have to brush your teeth. But that’s the opportunity that design has now, how can we make the experience of brushing more fun so that you can be more consistent with it. And when it’s time to visit your dentist, you’re confident that you’ve done your best. 

Right. Now you need the dentist to either assure you or make sure you can alleviate any issues you have. Yeah. So that’s the kind of space we’re working in. That’s what it opened up. How can we increase confidence? Right. People who are brushing their teeth, that they’re doing the best for their health. Yeah. And then we are getting into the space of insurance and how can we reduce the cost of oral care? 

Vandana: Right. Amazing. All of this happened because of, you know, one smart idea that let’s just, you know, go ahead and do the B2C and all these new avenues started to open up. That’s such a cool, cool way to, you know, execute on some of the strategy. That’s amazing. 

Vijay: Thank you. The whole team, yeah. 

Vandana: Yeah, yeah. So what are some of the, any hiccups that you had to deal with as you were introducing these new concepts in this industry? 

Vijay: Oh, completely. Very much. I mean, innovation is, when innovation works, it’s a lot of fun, right? It’s a lot of fun. You feel like a hero for a day and you can actually show those outcomes and you see those numbers coming in and people saying it works. It’s awesome. But that is like 1% of the time, right? So, but the rest of the time you’re struggling in the back sometimes for years without really knowing when things will actually work. A lot of struggles are, you know, in relation to, like I mentioned, being so enamored with the object that you’re designing that we forget that it’s the outcome. Aligning everybody to say, think this way is always challenging. 

So how do we draw in the right people at the right time? How do we use the right methods to focus and make sure everybody’s working towards the right outcomes is critical. Then at the same time, the other piece of it is around processes. There are so many today, if you think about it, I mean, I make fun and say this is the age of processes. Of Agile, of design thinking, a waterfall, like, I don’t know, there are people with Blackbird, Six Sigma, this and that, so much happening. 

And it’s for someone who’s getting into this, it can be so complex. And I don’t know if I prescribe to one process to say this is the only way. I don’t think anybody does, but we are so caught in with popular processes. Somebody, Agile worked and they wrote a book and great, everybody’s trying to do Agile. Does it work for medical products? Probably not. Similarly, waterfall probably doesn’t work for digital products. But the reality is we live in a world where experiences go across physical and digital realms. 

You cannot today have a smartphone and say, oh, this will be Agile, this will be a waterfall process. It has to be a mix. How do we bring that awareness to our teams to say, forget names and popularity of processes and procedures and so on, but rather think, use critical thinking and say, what next step, what little next step will enable us to bring confidence to the organization within our teams that the direction we are proceeding is right? How do we build that confidence? It could be just framing the problem. It could be going and validating something with users. 

It could be validating your business case. It could be like so many things are here that the traditional processes as described today do not necessarily fit the bill. But I think there are a lot of experts in innovation today. And just put on that critical thinking hat and say, what is that next step that will build confidence? And sometimes this frees up people. And a lot of my challenges are around how do you make sure everybody feels free to go and say, OK, look, the process says this, but then this is what is probably really needed. But if we can make the case that this is what’s really needed, do you think the organization will just tell you to just follow the process? Usually not. Right. So all of those thinking this way is critical. 

Vandana: So what are some of the dreams that you have, Vijay? I mean, with all of this going on, what would you consider to be a successful, let’s say, quarter or a year, let’s say, that would make you happy and feel successful that, yes, I was able to achieve this. So what’s that thing that’s on your head? 

Vijay: Yeah. I mean, looking back, you know, the funny thing was when I was a younger designer, my whole goal was to get that product out in the market that I have designed or I’ve had some work on it. Just getting that first thing I sketched on paper. I want to see it in the market. I just want somebody using it. So that was the initial goal for the many first couple of years. But over time, you know, that wore off. After a while, you see there are some good reviews, there are some bad reviews. You learn from it. You keep moving. Now, more and more, I see my… I’m successful when my teams feel confident that they’re doing their best work. 

And so a lot of my focus is, how can we build teams in a way where it’s structured based on needs that are truly evergreen? And I say this because also in the context of a lot of the layoffs recently, I was looking at Amazon, Facebook, so many of them have had layoffs. And many of my friends were actually affected. And when they were talking about the teams they were involved in, I see that there was like an Alexa voice team. There’s a team that’s like a Google search bar team. And similarly, I mean, these are just examples. I’m not singling them out. But I’m just saying many organizations today are, not only are they thinking product, but also structuring their teams based on product. 

To me, that’s problematic because on the one hand, while a need in your audience exists, but the way you target that need is the product. So if you structure your whole team based on the product or a feature within a product, then one, it creates an environment where irrespective of whether or not that product is needed, the team will be fighting for it because their credibility of what’s employed in the organization is based on it. So they’re going to fight for it. And then, of course, the most passionate fighters are going to win out whether or not the need is there in the market. 

Eventually, it hurts the business. Eventually, it hurts the team. The second is the same audience could have multiple features fighting for their attention. That, again, hurts your brand. That, again, hurts your team and makes it a little less meaningful. But instead, structuring, how do we build organizational structures where teams are based on evergreen needs within your space? So Philips, for example, we know we have to clean teeth. 

We don’t have a team that’s just based on a button for a power toothbrush. So we have teams that are there to clean teeth. There are teams that clean in between teeth. Those are evergreen needs. So there’s a whole team that does water flossers, the power flossers. And so understanding those spaces and structuring the right kind of teams and enabling them to define their problems correctly, to give them the ability to ask, what really gives me confidence as a team? What gives us confidence as a team to keep moving forward? And enabling them to do the right experiments to get that confidence. How do we make sure? And usually, if we do this, then things move fast. Right. 

And so how do we then make sure that we do this and enable them so that I think so there are three levels of impact. One is at the level of teams. I want them to feel empowered and confident. The level of organization. Yes, of course, I think the organization needs to see progress in you, in your team. Right. Your organization. And the other piece, which is something I’m passionate about, is I’ve kind of reflected very much on why design is important. To me, design is important because it can really be the connector between technology and culture. 

So much like design, technology by itself cannot be successful unless people adopt it. Right. And when people adopt it, it becomes part of culture. Right. And until now, in many cases, especially in the tech industry, we’ve been developing products, we put it out there and see what happens. You’re seeing all the effects of social media on politics and culture. And very quickly, it can go into a dark scene. I mean, now that we know, in hindsight, we can reflect, we can actually deliberately influence culture. Right. And organizations are right in the midst of it because we are developing products. We are coming up with new things. 

So I think it’s important for us to challenge ourselves and say, when we design something, when we develop a new product, as product managers, as innovators, as designers, as technologists, engineers, all these people coming together, I think the big challenge is now for us to rethink how are we shaping culture? Not just do an assessment of what are the risks to culture. Right. That’s what’s happening today. But rather say, how do you want to shape culture? Right. 

How do we want conversations to be between dentists and patients in the future? And how do we change the game there? How do we make it engaging? Then that’s a bigger question. And then how does your technology, your input, how does your brand become critical to that? And we are seeing, I mean, there are companies like Disney who have created such a huge impact on culture. If you think about a vacation with kids, Disneyland is some place, it’s like a must-do, right? Most people have that on their bucket list. 

So we know it’s so important to culture. So now think back to whether it’s B2B or B2C, what kind of culture do you want? Design to that so that you can do the right thing for humanity, do the right thing for the environment, society, and see how that can lead to good business outcomes. And that makes it meaningful for your teams, for your organizations, for your brands, and for society. And that’s usually very powerful. That’s where a lot of successful brands operate. 

Vandana: Love that. I love that. And that’s a great way to wrap the episode. If there’s anything else that you want to add to that, please feel free, Vijay. This was a very insightful talk. 

Vijay: Yeah. Thank you. This has been a great opportunity. Looking forward to the podcast coming up. 

Vandana: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. Wish you a lot of great learnings and lessons in all of the stuff that you’re into right now. 
Vijay: Thank you, Vandana.

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