Kaiser Permanente, the largest health maintenance organization in the U.S., was developing a long-range growth plan in 2003 that would attract more patients and cut costs. Kaiser has hundreds of medical offices and hospitals and thought it might have to replace many of them with expensive next-generation buildings. It hired IDEO, the Palo Alto (Calif.) design firm, for help. Kaiser execs didn't know it then, but they were about to go on a fascinating journey of self-discovery. That's because of IDEO's novel approach. For starters, Kaiser nurses, doctors, and facilities managers teamed up with IDEO's social scientists, designers, architects, and engineers and observed patients as they made their way through their medical facilities. At times, they played the role of patient themselves.
Together they came up with some surprising insights. IDEO's architects revealed that patients and family often became annoyed well before seeing a doctor because checking in was a nightmare and waiting rooms were uncomfortable. They also showed that Kaiser's doctors and medical assistants sat too far apart. IDEO's cognitive psychologists pointed out that people, especially the young, the old, and immigrants, visit doctors with a parent or friend, but that second person is often not allowed to stay with the patient, leaving the afflicted alienated and anxious. IDEO's sociologists explained that patients hated Kaiser's examination rooms because they often had to wait alone for up to 20 minutes half-naked, with nothing to do, surrounded by threatening needles. IDEO and Kaiser concluded that the patient experience can be awful even when people leave treated and cured.
What to do? After just seven weeks with IDEO, Kaiser realized its long-range growth plan didn't require building lots of expensive new facilities. What it needed was to overhaul the patient experience. Kaiser learned from IDEO that seeking medical care is much like shopping — it is a social experience shared with others. So it needed to offer more comfortable waiting rooms and a lobby with clear instructions on where to go; larger exam rooms, with space for three or more people and curtains for privacy, to make patients comfortable; and special corridors for medical staffers to meet and increase their efficiency. "IDEO showed us that we are designing human experiences, not buildings," says Adam D. Nemer, medical operations services manager at Kaiser. "Its recommendations do not require big capital expenditures."
We watched a video on IDEO when I was in grad school, and I have wanted to work for them ever since. This is another one of those strange business situations I don't understand. IDEO's methods have been written about quite a bit, yet no one seems to copy them and companies rarely try it themselves. IDEO's "revolutionary" idea generating process involves observing actual users of the target product or service, asking questions of customers, and role playing as customers themselves. Is that really revolutionary? It sounds like the things a good business should be doing on a regular basis. When are b-schools going to stop churning out cookie cutter middle managers and start teaching students to be creative and customer focused?