Manufacturing Show – Lean Manufacturing Today, Human-Centered Design Tomorrow

Twisthink’s Managing Partner, Bob Niemiec, had the opportunity to connect with Todd Hockenberry on the Manufacturing Show podcast.




Hello, Manufacturing Podcast listeners!

Twisthink’s Managing Partner, Bob Niemiec, had the opportunity to connect with Todd Hockenberry on the Manufacturing Show podcast. Listen in on this 30-minute discussion as they chat about the importance of user experience. In addition to user experience in manufacturing, the two discuss:

  • Prioritizing lean manufacturing practices today in order to invest in human-centered design (HCD) tomorrow
  • How manufacturers can stay relevant to consumers
  • How to make high volumes of data useful for improving user experience

You can find the resources mentioned in the interview down below. Make sure to look around the site to learn more and see the newest resources available. And if you want to connect with Bob Niemiec on some of the topics discussed, fill out the form, and he would welcome the opportunity to connect.



Bob Niemiec 0:04
There’s another process called HCD or Human Centered Design that allows an organization to pursue innovation excellence, which is all about the future.

Intro 0:24
Welcome to The Manufacturing Show. A podcast for industry professionals who never stop learning. We’ll share specific strategies, tools and insights to help you take your career and business to the next level. Let’s get into the show.

Todd Hockenberry 0:37
Hello, This is Todd Hockenberry, co-host of the Manufacturing Podcast. I’m very excited today. Our guest is Robert Niemiec. He’s the Managing Partner at Twisthink; a digital innovation partner working to help companies bring their new products or services to life. Through hands on partnerships, fueled by strategic insight, Human Centered Design.  I can’t wait to hear more about, and advanced technology. Twisthink empowers each of their clients to imagine, develop and launch exciting new user experiences that their customers will love. Anything that makes customers happy, makes me happy. So I’m looking forward to this conversation. Thanks for coming on the show, Robert.

Bob Niemiec 1:15
Thanks, Todd.  look forward to covering the ground of innovation, acceleration and growth. with you.

Todd Hockenberry 1:25
Can you just give us a quick background on on what you’ve done and how you got where you are; and what Twisthink is and what they do?

Bob Niemiec 1:31
Sure. The short story; born and raised in Detroit; engineer by training and undergrad in business. Spent nearly 20 years in the automotive industry, both in North America and in Europe. So I’d like to say I’ve got a few miles under my feet from a manufacturing perspective. I kind of grew up in that space, you might say.

Todd Hockenberry 2:03
Me too. We’re two birds of a feather there.

Bob Niemiec 2:06
And then, really, in 2001, I had the benefit of launching a firm that is now known as Twisthink. This is our 19th year as a team. And the whole premise behind the organization when we launched it as a team of five, was bringing two very different creative skills together as one. And so part of our team are talented individuals in the skill of industrial design. So design minded or creative, right-brain minded individuals, working in a collaborative space, in a dynamic environment with technology-minded individuals. And when we say technology, we’re really referring to the digital age to electrical engineering: hardware, software and AIoT-minded individuals. You might say [they are] left-brain and linear in their processes and their thinking. And what started as an experiment has now quickly grown into a strong team, and a much larger team, bringing those two skills together under one roof, and having them work as a service agent for the clients that we serve and, helping them understand user experience. And then deploying digital technology to create new user experiences for the clients that we serve.

Todd Hockenberry 3:49
Is the user experience you refer to bound up in the product itself. Is it about designing products that people like to use or services people like to use? Is that the connection where you’re coming in and working with people, that may be threre’s more thinking about it from a technology standpoint and not a user standpoint?

Bob Niemiec

“No longer do we live in the industrial age, nor the technology age, we live in the age of user experience.”

Bob Niemiec 4:08
But we would cite that no longer do we live in the industrial age, nor the technology age, we live in the age of user experience. So everything we do, starts with users and stakeholders and in a sense the customer and then we use that to drive. What’s the appropriate technology application that can bring about the necessary user experience? And we sometimes refer to a smile as innovation tachometer. And in this age of data, and more data and more data, we’re uniquely gifted with those kind of different skills of design and technology being a part of one team, we are uniquely skilled in delivering those experiences in a smart and intuitive and value creating fashion.

Our firm from the get go has been not only kind of been fueled by great technology. We have a process called Human Centered Design that I think 1.) it comes out of the domain of training and development in the industrial design community, the creative, right-brain community. But this process, which has kind of proven stage gates, and there are countless tools and methods that can be deployed in each step of the process. Our experience for now 19 years is that if you’re an organization trying to engage in building a digital transformation strategy, starting with this process, really allows you to clearly understand the the user experience that your stakeholders need. And this process allows you to paint the target to then direct the organization to run after. So it [HCD] brings clarity to front-end innovation before you spend time trying to build a complicated Internet of Things platform.

I think one lesson that I’ve learned time and time again is that organizations are wise [and] manufacturers are wise to embrace lean manufacturing. Its proven. It allows an organization to operate with excellence. And doing so allows a company to stay relevant today.

But I would argue there’s a there’s another process called HCD, or human centered design, that allows an organization to pursue innovation excellence, which is all about the future. So you have “lean” for today, and smart companies are wise to invest in HCD. You might even say design thinking is another term used in in defining this process. But companies are wise to leverage that process for the future and for creating innovation and acceleration and growth.

Todd Hockenberry 7:40
So I talked a lot about customer experience on the back end. This is more of the marketing and sales side, being a huge area of differentiation for companies today. People want to be marketed to and sold differently. You’re going back even farther up the chain. We’re talking about designing the actual product or service itself. And I agree with you that users are King today and the experience is a huge differentiation point. Can you talk about some of the different expectations users have in general today, over the last 10 – 15 years, where there’s been changes and different expectations.

Bob Niemiec

“The expectation of users broadly speaking today is that the information, the data needs to be smart. It needs to be intuitive, and the experience of interacting with that data needs to drive a higher degree of efficiency and excellence.”

Bob Niemiec 8:14
I think we all can relate to the demand on our attention today. And in so many ways, we’re consumed and in many times overwhelmed with the volume of data hitting us on every front. And so I think the expectation of users broadly speaking today is that, the information, the data needs to be smart. It needs to be intuitive, and the experience of interacting with that data needs to drive a higher degree of efficiency and excellence. So when we’re all under the gun from a speed perspective, we need experiences that run alongside of us and don’t slow us down. And again, back to this process of Human Centered Design is all about focusing on the users or we might use the term stakeholders. And as we all know, whether it’s a product or a service, there’s always different levels of stakeholders involved. You may have your primary stakeholders, but there’s also secondary and tertiary stakeholders. This process allows you to really get in their heads and get in their hearts to understand pain points. And it’s thinking through and analyzing the pain points that then, we act as the catalyst for creativity and imagination.

How can we address that pain point with that primary statement? There are that secondary or tertiary stakeholder. Broadly speaking, this is the front end innovation, part of the journey before efforts go into deploying a new product, or a new service. Most companies [and] manufacturers, (this just isn’t limited to automotive manufacturers); manufacturers in every industry over time can sometimes fall in the trap of saying, “we know what our customers want. Let’s just go do this.” And “hey this new wireless technology with a new sophisticated protocol of Bluetooth or proprietary wireless connectivity, let’s just go deliver it to them and all will be good.” And I think this is where we are constantly promoting that, “hey before we deploy anything, let’s spend some time to understand the customer experience, the user experience and the stakeholder pain points.”

Bob Niemiec

“People just assume they know what people want or what their users want, or what the product is? I actually think that’s the number one reason startups fail, is they don’t ask that question on a deep enough level.”

Todd Hockenberry 11:09
Well you’re speaking my language. We work with clients all the time to help them develop ideal buyer personas. And it’s all about understanding what they need from their perspective and how they want to go through the process. And why don’t more companies do this?

I’m gonna introduce you to my cable company, because they clearly don’t do Human Centered Design. It’s actually my internet provider. Some of these companies are just so bad. Why aren’t more companies adopting these ideas? And really turning this thing around? Like you said, people just assume they know what people want or what their users want, or what the product is? I actually think that’s the number one reason startups fail, its that they don’t ask that question on a deep enough level. It’s not about their technology or their tool or their app. They’re smart, they’re good stuff, but they don’t find out if people really want it.

Bob Niemiec 12:00
Exactly. We could spend an hour on this point alone. And I don’t want to do that. But you ask a great question. Why don’t more more organizations and leaders of more companies lean into a process like HCD? I would argue, having been immersed in it in my automotive season for 20 years, and now nearly 20 years in a practice that’s delivering innovation to the clients that we serve, that a lot of it comes down to left-brain dominance in most organization. So the linear-minded, data-driven leaders who, in a sense fall into that trap that I’ve mentioned earlier about, “we know what our customers want, let’s just get after it and go as a driver.” I think the the lack of appreciation and respect for right-brain skills and talent and training, which again, industrial design as a curriculum helps cultivate and foster and grow. That skill is, in most organizations overlooked or disregarded. When you talk about imagination, and creativity, those aren’t left-brained skills, generally speaking, you need a process. You even need a workspace that helps promote that creative energy that I would argue every organization should be running after.

Harvard Business Review did a pretty comprehensive survey in 2016, and came back with kind of startling results, talking to public and private companies. And the results were, though most organizations would rightfully say, “Hey, we’re innovative, we’ve got a good thing going.” Their proof-point in drilling into those 5000 plus organizations was that only 9% of those companies really had a culture and a process and a commitment to serious innovation. What we’re trying to do as a firm, we’re trying to help companies join the 9% Club.

Todd Hockenberry 14:38
Well, we see a very similar statistic when it comes to being customer centered from a service and a sales perspective. Similar surveys were done and the numbers came back very close. I think it was 80%. Something like 80 plus percent of companies say they’re customer focused, but when you ask their customers, only 8% of their customers said they [was company] was.

And I think you’re exactly right. I think there’s a bias towards understanding there’s probably a name for this right? You’re around your customers enough, you just assume you think you know it. I see it in sales and marketing all the time. I see this as they say, “Oh well, we just didn’t go sell to these people.” I said, “Well, if you talk to those people, we should be just selling to those people.”

And there’s no real thinking about the people and from their perspective. I think you’re exactly right. The whole process needs to be people-need to flip it over. And the winners are going to be the ones that create these experiences from from day one: from the design point all the way through delivery, and every touch point in the middle. Actually, I think it’s the entire company that has to be aligned around that idea.

Bob Niemiec 15:43
Yeah I agree. And again, I mentioned earlier that this great process that creates value, guaranteed is called Human Centered Design. And I think you know, the other exciting dimension of industry today is having an impact on every one of your listeners, and the companies that they represent is the space of quote unquote, digital transformation. If you want to take it down a click, “Internet of Things”, or AI.

So for us as a firm, with a process called HCD, that allows us to paint the target and the mega trend for creating new user experiences and solving some of those customer pain points. This is linked to the digital domain. There’s a one two punch that I would testify, allows companies to go from below the waterline in the space of commodity to above the waterline in the domain of fresh air and innovative air.

Todd Hockenberry 17:02
So let’s get to the practical a little bit. Can you tell us some stories of digital innovation, unlocking new business values with some of the clients you’ve worked with over the years,

Bob Niemiec 17:11
Sure. So we have one we’ve been in this space from the get go. We have 100 million connected devices deployed right now, somewhere in North America. Right? So connectivity and digital or “Internet of Things” is near and dear to our heart. We recently had a client in the office furniture domain, who, for years has produced a great product, great brand that we all know, but it was all very mechanically biased. Desks, chairs, file cabinets. Well, that company in 2015-2016 made a commitment and a resolve to create new user experiences; using connected devices integrated into their [for example] sit-stand desk. And so they now have a whole entirely new product portfolio of connected devices that results in new user experiences for the clients that they serve.

We [understand] this space. We launched our own company in 2009, not called Twisthink. We branded this product and this company Twist HDM. And the product that we brought to the marketplace was called Limelight. Limelight is an outdoor wireless lighting control system deployed on lights in parking lots, city parks, and parking garages. And it creates a whole new user experience for people passing through a parking garage.

That’s the primary stakeholder. It also allows the city manager to monitor and control those lights together, in an energy savings effect. And then it also provides a value in terms of maintenance. Whenever a light goes down in a community in a city, somebody on that maintenance team is [going to get] an alert to advise them which light in which location. So this space of connectivity and creating new experiences that drive growth and drive value, is one we’ve been immersed in for quite a while. That company Twist HDM and the product known as Limelight was acquired a year ago by a great private company, a global lighting leader by the name of Lutron. So Limelight is now branded Limelight by Lutron. And they’re just taking it to an even greater scale globally, [more than] we were as a team based in the Midwest.

And I think there’s a client now who is 45 days away from launching their digital platform; [a client in the mining industry], that’s creating new user experiences for the product that they have deployed globally. And connecting that product to the cloud, transmitting data in an intuitive smart way to drive smart behavior, smart action.

Todd Hockenberry 20:50
Excellent. You’ve talked about (in terms of innovation) your Shed. So tell us what the shed is and some ideas on why that’s something that’s important for a manufacturing company to consider?

Bob Niemiec

“Creating space that fosters creativity and imagination for that, for that organizations, appropriate team, and allowing them to fail fast, do multiple iterations of prototypes, test those prototypes with key stakeholders, that kind of lean activity, even in organizations that have been operating for for decades is is a way to shift the culture of innovation within an organization and allow companies to behave differently.”

Bob Niemiec 21:02
The whole premise behind the Shed is amplifying a little bit of the space that our team operates out of. We’re in a great historic, hundred year old building with high ceilings and wood floors. And in a sense, we act as a shed for all of the clients that we’re serving. And the notion behind the Shed is “do organizations and manufacturers even have the space that can help promote and drive innovative activity and even innovative results?”

So we all know there are countless organizations and brands that are now global giants. But if you study the history of those firms, many of them were in a lean startup, kind of garage-shed like environment. And I think organizations are wise. There was a term back in my automotive days in the 80s, the the classic term of skunkworks. And what that meant within an organization was smart; creating space that fosters creativity and imagination for that organizations and appropriate team; allowing them to fail fast, do multiple iterations of prototypes, test those prototypes with key stakeholders; that kind of lean activity. Even in organizations that have been operating for decades is a way to shift the culture of innovation within an organization and allow companies to behave differently.

So often innovation struggles to grow within a manufacturer because it gets consumed by the culture of that existing manufacturing firm. So the whole premise behind a shed is “hey, create a different space and provide some freedom to that team to really be creative about not just what core innovation might look like. But also what might adjacent innovation look like and transformative innovation look like within that organization just focusing on “lean” and calling that innovation because you found different material to use within your particular product. [This] isn’t a great long term strategy for staying above the waterline in the air of innovation. “Lean” won’t deliver. Lean is smart for today, but I would promote or suggest that Human Centered Design is really smart for innovation excellence over the long haul.

Todd Hockenberry 24:14
Gotcha. So last question. So you’ve got your shed, you’ve got a place. So let’s talk about the team a little bit that would be working in that shed. Is this a cross functional team that you’re talking about? What’s the best makeup of a team like that to be the most innovative? What’s your experience tell us?

Bob Niemiec 24:32
Well, I think for us, because we’ve been fueled with technology as a key pillar within our business from the get go; I think in today’s economy, companies are wise not to look over technology, just like the reference I made to the office furniture companies that had no experience with technology. They leaned into it, and they leaned into it pretty hard. And it’s now delivering a whole new value stream.

So, I think that needs to be a component. But quite honestly, the variable that I think every company, product, manufacturer, or service, or even our education institutions, [needs] to figure out a way to lean into the skill of design, design thinking, or industrial designers, by training, and curriculum. That skill is a secret weapon for any company to create new user experience, and to drive growth and valuable growth like never before. So if your listeners are not familiar with the power of design, or design thinking, I would just say, take the time to explore it. Invest in it and figure out how to have it as part of your Fix team in your shed. Have it as an extended network teammate that can provide a different kind of energy to any manufacturer. I just can’t express enough how that will have a transformative impact on any company on planet Earth.

Todd Hockenberry 26:34
Well, I love it. It’s a great ideas to end on. Robert, I really appreciate you being on the show today. How can people connect with you? It’s your website’s How else can we connect with you?

Bob Niemiec 26:45
So one point, the spelling of our name has one T in the middle. So it’s TWISTHINK. All one word [.com]. And then if you put a stroke, /imp that will get you to the right location on our website.

Todd Hockenberry 27:04
Excellent. Excellent. I’ll make sure those links get into the show notes. And Robert, thank you very much for being a guest today. Very interesting conversation. Aanything that improves customer user experience, I’m a big fan of. And I know manufacturing companies need this in the worst way. So thank you for being on the show.

Bob Niemiec

“So human centered design is all about creating, not maintaining.”

Bob Niemiec 27:19
Hey, just one parting thought. You know, we’re in football season. Super Bowls on the horizon. Here’s a great quote from that great leader in the NFL from the 60s, Vince Lombardi. Even Vince Lombardi was preaching Human Centered Design. And he didn’t even know it when he said, “The joy is in the creating, not maintaining.” So Human Centered Design is all about creating, not maintaining.

Todd Hockenberry 27:51
Very nice. I love it, Robert, thank you again, appreciate the show. Again, I’m Todd Hockenberry co-host of The Manufacturing podcast grow series. Check us out on iTunes. If you like the show, just search manufacturing show to come right up. If you like the show, please review us and give us a rating and some comments. And if you have topics you’d like to have us review, or discuss or you have guests you’d like to have on the show, reach out to us through the website. We’d love to talk to you. Thanks everybody.

Outro 28:19
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