The big idea: Design thinking has been highlighted recently as a tool for inspiring products, innovating business models and solving seemingly intractable problems. One town in Denmark realized the power of design thinking when it revamped the services provided to its elderly population. The town faced a problem in its subsidized food delivery program. The design thinking process revealed solutions that made a dramatic impact on employee and customer satisfaction.

The scenario: Denmark is renowned for the care of its elders. More than 125,000 seniors rely on government-sponsored meals organized and delivered through local municipalities.

In 2009, the Danish municipality of Holstelbro realized that its ability to feed the growing number of seniors was faltering. The Hospitable Food Service (HPS), the municipality’s meal preparation and delivery organization, planned to revamp the menu to take advantage of easily prepared foods. Instead, it engaged the design firm Hatch & Bloom to examine options for an overhaul of its program.

The resolution: The team applied design thinking. Its first step was to investigate the problem intensively from the point of view of the elderly and the employees. The design team used techniques borrowed from ethnography, the study and systematic recording of human cultures and behaviors, to investigate the whole process. It watched the food prep process, went along on delivery runs with employees and observed how customers and employees interacted. The designers also noted that seniors picked at their meals and threw much away.

The problems within the service were not as straightforward as the HPS had expected. They did not revolve around efficiency or maximizing the supply chain. The experience needed revamping from the both the employee and customer perspectives. The team set up prototyping workshops to teach employees how to use seasonal items and learn about meals popular decades ago. These new skills and improved relations with customers inspired the transformation from food service employees to restaurant chefs. The “new” chefs produced better-looking, more enticing food with the same ingredients. Over time, the chefs’ pride rose dramatically and customers were eager to engage with them when they delivered the food.

The lesson: Design thinking can uncover unanticipated solutions, even in organizations as constrained as government-funded social services. This solution may seem obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t at the outset. Taking the time to understand the roots of the problem and experimenting with prototyped solutions can produce astounding results.

Andrew King

King is senior researcher at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. The original case was written by King; Kevin Bennett, a manager at Personal; and Jeanne Liedtka, a Darden business professor.