Using Starbucks to improve patient experiences.

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How MSF JIU’s problem-solving support fosters creativity.

If innovation is to be successful, it cannot be shut away inside a silo like an Innovation Unit. Innovation is everyone’s job. But Innovation Units have a crucial supporting role to play.

In recognition of this, the MSF Japan Innovation Unit (JIU) has been piloting a creative problem-solving mentorship programme for MSF staff called CREAME for the past 9 months. Based on our pilot, one insight in particular stands out about how people tend to solve problems.

Problem analysis gets rushed

During our pilot, again and again we saw people hurry through the problem analysis phase of the innovation process. They want to get straight to identifying sensational solutions. But as we explain in the “What we do” section of the JIU website:

It is easy to propose exciting but too often unrealistic ideas when the nature of a problem is not thoroughly investigated.

Inadequate insights about the problem you are tackling mean you cannot critically appraise proposed solutions. We have found two particular results stemming from this. First, without properly understanding the eco-system in which your problem sits, any solution you propose risks causing ripples that create new problems elsewhere.

Second, we have found that limiting problem analysis leads people to focus on solutions they already had in mind. This is a major constraint on creativity that leaves other possibilities unexplored, and any assumptions and biases on which pre-existing ideas are based untested. Risks become higher of wasting time and resources by simply ‘betting’ on a solution that has a high likelihood of being suboptimal.

Looking to Starbucks for Inspiration

To address this tendency, the MSF JIU approach takes inspiration from some of the innovation going on all around us in Japan. Uheira and Kai (2009) give a great example, paraphrased below.

Some years ago, Japan’s largest office furniture manufacturer saw an opportunity in the competitive hospital furniture market. Japanese hospitals had historically been very “doctor-centred” paying little attention to patients’ experiences. But crucially, within the Japanese Health Insurance scheme, hospitals must to some extent compete with each other for patients.

The furniture manufacturer contracted a consultancy firm to do an extensive research project on patients’ hospital experiences. That investigation identified the hospital reception lobby as the most important moment in patients’ overall hospital experience. Time in the lobby was typically characterised by feelings of anxiety and discomfort due to waiting and uncertainty. The firm concluded that the furniture manufacturer could offer hospitals a competitive advantage by innovating in ways relevant to patients’ experiences in the lobby.

The investigation specifically identified communication, flexibility and use of space as central to how patients’ felt about their time in the lobby. After realising that concerns of flexibility and space are not unique to hospitals, the consultants studied arrangements of chairs and the relationships between seats and other spaces in places like Starbucks, hotel lobbies and retail shops. This grounded the solutions they ultimately offered to the furniture company to pitch to their hospital clients.

Developing hypotheses to structure idea-making

The trick for this company – and for us at JIU – is to follow:

“A hypothesis-driven process that is problem focused, which means that it does not define the problem to be solved at the outset. Defining the problem to solve is a critical task for design thinking. In addition, through its tools and the attitude promoted, design thinking ensures that multiple options are considered and tested.”

Mahmoud-Jouini et al. 2016, 151-152

The qualitative analysts in the Japanese hospital example engaged in a structured effort to think out-of-the-box: a term we are so used to talking about in an unstructured way that ultimately empties it of all meaning. For these analysts of patient experiences, structured out-of-the-box thinking nudged them to look well beyond hospitals at places like cafes, hotels and shops for possible ways to improve patients’ experience. This is an excellent example of using lateral thinking based on solid, research driven hypotheses, expanding what author Steven Johnson calls the ‘adjacent possible’ (2011). For Johnson, new ideas develop incrementally by building on existing ones. Framing a problem too early, with inadequate analysis, risks limiting the “adjacent possibilities” from which other ideas can be developed.

CREAME’s pilot has successfully provided this missing structure to MSF staff faced with seemingly intractable problems that require creative thinking. Our programme does nothing with the substance that is being innovated: we know that the staff we are working with know the ins-and-outs of what they do far better than we ever could. We simply suggest tools – and give guidance on how to use those tools – for structuring that innovation.

If that guidance sounds interesting to you, please get in touch!

We would love to support you in your creative problem solving!

  • Johnson, S. (2011). Where Good Ideas come from. The Penguin Group: London
  • Mahmoud-Jouini, S.B., Midler, C. and Silberzahn P. (2016) Contributions of Design Thinking to Project Management in an Innovation Context. Project Management Journal. 47(2):144-56.
  • Uehira, T. and Kay, C.,(2009). Using design thinking to improve patient experiences in Japanese hospitals: a case study. Journal of Business Strategy, 30(2/3), pp.6-12.


MSF Japan Innovation Team

MSF Japan Innovation Team is providing innovative ideas of solutions to the MSF activities. If you, either as a company or as a professional, have an idea that would be beneficial to our projects as well as patients, please contact us. Your innovative proposal is always appreciated.