The South Western Railway (SWR) case series examines a design thinking project from its inception to the final stages of experimentation, with a particular emphasis on the design of research strategies, both at the initial discovery stage and at the concluding testing stage. The A and B cases each conclude at a pivotal stage in the data-gathering process. The A case sets the design problem and its context and invites students to design a plan for exploratory research as a follow-on assignment. The B case reviews the research strategy implemented, identifies insights it produced, and concludes with a description of three concepts it inspired and an invitation to design a set of experiments to test the concepts’ desirability, feasibility, and viability. The C case reviews the two phases of testing actually conducted. Taken together, the three cases cover a completed design thinking process in detail, with a particular goal of encouraging student reflection on the design of research plans, both exploratory and confirmatory.
SWR operated some of the busiest train routes in the United Kingdom, with 235 million passenger journeys a year. It covered urban, suburban, regional, and long-distance routes between London’s Waterloo Station and locations in southwestern England. SWR struggled with some long-term problems: challenging relations with a highly unionized work force , major network repairs needed, low staff morale, and overcrowded commuter services. All these were compounded by the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
Amid these challenges, senior leadership at SWR concluded that the pandemic presented a unique opportunity to change how the public and the UK Department for Transportation viewed SWR, and to improve the passenger experience. SWR reached out to David Kester & Associates (DK&A), a leading design-strategy consultancy, in search of a partnership that could help the rail company innovate. DK&A’s mandate was clear: learn fast from customers, rapidly deliver confidence-building basics at stations, and work closely with SWR staff to reshape both the organization’s culture and their passenger’s experience. SWR wanted practical ideas to better meet customer needs—ones that could be trialed and scaled throughout the network. But how to go about gathering the data needed within a tight timeline amid the complexity of SWR’s operations and opportunities?
For those interested in adding self or peer assessment to students’ design thinking learning journey, Professor Jeanne Liedtka, working with coauthors Karen Hold, Jessica Eldridge, and Treehouse Design, has synthesized more than a decade of research at Darden to create the Innovation Impact Assessment. This tool will help students identify personal development opportunities and provide them with practical guidance (in the form of detailed individual feedback reports) to accelerate skill development. The instrument identifies a set of five core competencies based on 44 behaviors that successful design thinkers have in common. It is available for individual use and bulk purchase via Darden Business Publishing at this link: https://store.darden.virginia.edu/innovation-impact-assessment.