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Former Member
In this article series, I want to tell you the story of SAP’s Design Thinking journey. Looking at some important points of SAP’s history, I’ll show you how to unleash the power of Design Thinking. Spoiler alert: It’s not rocket science. Having covered the importance of involving customers early in the first article, this part highlights why lean and agile development are most powerful in combination.

I’ve recently read a fantastic book – The Lean Startup by Silicon-Valley entrepreneur Eric Ries. If you haven’t read it yet, I can only encourage you to do so. There was one quote in particular that stuck with me:

“Building something nobody wants is the ultimate form of waste.” – Eric Ries1

I could not phrase it any better, this is absolutely true. Today, many software corporations build lots of applications that nobody needs at the end of the day. That’s precisely where “lean” comes into play.

At SAP, we started with lean in 2008. To a large extent, this was due to a great challenge we were facing. Back then, it took us about 18 months to develop a product and get it on the market. Too long? Yes, indeed. In the consumer world, it takes a couple of weeks. In the cloud, you can finalize a product within only one day. That’s why we went for lean.

The Power of Lean

Starting with lean, we introduced several elements with it. Every single one of them is tremendously important for lean approaches to function efficiently – from employee empowerment, over having quality, cost, and development in one hand, to continuous improvement and learning. It’s amazing how much we experienced and learned by applying these principles.

Come Together

Let me elaborate on a few of these key learnings. Co-locating cross-functional teams turned out to be a true asset – and I’ve done a little experiment to verify this. I called up two teams and assigned them to the same task. The first one worked in a very familiar setup: Colleagues in different locations, working together via meetings and calls. I told the other group to come together for one week instead and to work jointly on the same topic in one room. The result was stunning. The second team developed something truly amazing! And you know what? The solution they came up with was designed, developed, and transferred to the customer within due time. On the other hand, the first team turned out to require much more time. Hence, if you have the chance to get people together in one room, focusing all their energy on one topic: Go ahead and do so! The outcome will be sublime.

Uncover Customer Value

One thing I’m really proud of is that the SAP AppHaus team is committed to thinking about their customers first in everything they do. They regularly step into the shoes of their customers – be it truck drivers, bakers, or hairdressers – to find out what their real pain points are. Identifying precisely what the user wants is essential. Uncovering customer value is what I call an amazing achievement.

Understand the Value of People and Environment

The Iceberg Model by Edward T. Hall

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Iceberg Model. Originally, Edward T. Hall developed it as an analogy to culture, but it can be used in corporate contexts just as nicely. Processes, methods, and tools cover the surface. Yet, focusing on processes alone is not enough. What about people? What about their behaviors and environment? That’s all hidden below the surface and it’s extremely valuable – about 80% of the opportunity is in fact stored in an organization’s culture.2

If you want to transform an organization and become truly innovative, process-centered perspectives alone will not lead you there. And I’m convinced that this cultural change begins with a new way of leadership: We need to humanize it.

The Power of Agile and Lean

In 2012, SAP continued its journey with Design Thinking by combining lean with agile. Lots of SAP customers strive for agile methods. For a good reason. With agile, companies can optimize development processes, become more productive, and get things done more quickly. This is great but clearly masks a huge problem: If you put garbage in, you’ll get garbage out of the process. That’s why we need Design Thinking to complement agile. From the beginning, Design Thinking and agile need to be combined to involve end users in an iterative way and get a product implemented and into the hands of customers. That’s all that matters.

Combining Design Thinking and Agile

At this year’s SAP NOW Berlin, Jürgen Müller, SAP Chief Technology Officer and board member, phrased this very nicely in a formula:

Innovation = Creativity x Execution

I completely agree. Both components alone cannot deliver the same value as their combination. Creativity and execution belong together to foster innovation. The same holds for agile and lean.

Learning #2 of #4: Combine Design Thinking and Agile

Watch out for my third blog on agile and lean ? Interested in watching the entire story on Design Thinking: Agile and Lean? Check out my video:


1 Ries, E. (2011). The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. N.Y: Crown Business.

2 Burke, W. W. (2008). Organization change: Theory and Practice. Los Angeles: SAGE.


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