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Sean Carney Chief Design Officer for Royal Philips

Whether it’s their cutting edge lighting or covetable electric toothbrushes, Philips leads the way in effective and beautiful design. In the first of our one-to-one interviews with international design leaders, Raymond Turner talks with Sean Carney, Chief Design Officer, about the challenges and ambitions of leading design in one of the world’s most famous businesses.

Philips has a well-documented design heritage with many well known design leaders bringing their own contributions to the development of the company, from Louis Kalff who, more than 80 years ago was identifying local preferences worldwide, through Rein Veersema and Knut Yran who, in the 60s, set up the Industrial Design Bureau and introduced pre-design research respectively.

By 1991, Stefano Marzano had introduced ‘High Design’, a multi-disciplinary, research-based human-focused approach to design which incorporated disciplines such as anthropology and psychology. Sean Carney, head of design, is continuing this philosophy. By understanding individuals and how they live their lives, Philips responds to the complexities of evolving markets with solutions that create value for people and business.

What was it like to join a company with such a legacy of design leadership?

“Like most businesses, change is always a constant factor and Philips is no exception. We recently announced the creation of two market-leading companies focused on the HealthTech and Lighting solutions opportunities. In parallel with this re-organisation we have been reviewing how best to serve the business through strategically focused design leadership.

I found that, although Philips had a huge external reputation for design, this was not reflected equally well inside the company. There lacked a fully effective relationship between design and the business. Also, the design function was essentially a large consultancy of about 500 people, required to make a profit from internal charges. The problem with internal charging was that its contribution to ROI was very difficult to see, measure or appreciate.

We set about changing this situation. First, by making Design a cost-centre where our target is to break-even. Second, we have set about building a bridge back to the business. This has involved re-organising the historic central design resource into dedicated teams, one for each part of our business. As a result the designers have developed deep and intimate knowledge of the business they are in and extensive expertise relevant to their business category.

We have continued to keep a central Group resource, which concentrates on leading edge innovation capability and new competence development, along with overall brand experience and governance.”

“We have strived to create a new cultural relationship between design and the rest of the business.”
– Sean Carney, Chief Design Officer for Royal Philips

What evidence do you have that this change of relationship between design and the business is working?

“Consider oral healthcare as an example. Here the dedicated team of designers worked for about a year on product road-mapping based on understanding the competitive set, insights from the market and building an intimate knowledge of both the users and dental health professional needs. This resulted in the design team becoming experts in oral healthcare. The same continues to happen in all our other business areas such as mother and child care or clinical and patient monitoring.

This way of design engagement has led to a demand for design going up year-on-year quite significantly. We now understand the business areas better and come with solutions based on real detailed knowledge of the sector and not just advice from corporate head office.”


Can you tell us something about the role of design leadership in envisioning the future of Philips?

“As we become more respected business partners, and bring our customer-centricity into the product life cycles, we are being seen as adding to the value propositions that the business can create.

My predecessor, Stefano Marzano, developed the idea of Design Probes. These looked ten to twenty years ahead to see how technology and society would change the world of Philips. This work resulted in many publications and presentations about the future and were excellent external PR for Philips design. Internally, however, the relevance of this work was not recognised by the businesses. They could not see how these visions would fit into today’s business reality.

Since then things have changed. We are now using this idea of envisioning in a different way – as a constructive business tool. A good example of this working in practice is the development of a new neonatal intensive care unit. We re-envisioned how this might look in 10 years time. This extended timeframe meant we were uninhibited in how we would think about technology and products. We were not constrained by the process of incremental development – we could take big leaps ahead.

To do this we pulled in key opinion leaders, medical experts, doctors, clinicians and neonatal intensive care specialists from the world’s leading hospitals. We sketched out future scenarios, made prototype environments and then sought their contribution. We then started to build a more robust concept based on the insights from those leading specialists. As we did that we also had our partners from the different businesses join us in the dialogue so they could hear the voice of that future customer first hand.

As a result of this intensive and comprehensive collaboration we built, what we called, an ‘experience lab’ for the intensive care unit which brought the ideas to life and could be critiqued and developed further. This gave us the basis for a very constructive dialogue about what we could do today based on that vision of the future. This has begun to inform the product road maps that are being developed today.”


How have you brought the Board and Executive along with you?

“I joined Philips at the same time as Frans van Houten, our new CEO. He is a real visionary. He wanted to understand the potential for Philips if it could connect to the Cloud and leverage all the data collected from the 350 million patients connected to and using our products every day. A lot of the business did not understand the future potential of harnessing this data so we created a digital deep-dive. We looked at the emerging trends in technology, in society and business to create a digital road map showing how these trends were evolving. We then developed scenarios showing how these trends might impact on Philips at a sector and individual business level.

Next, we ran four hour sessions with the Executive Committee, taking them through, for example, what start-ups in California were doing and what big industry was doing, in areas that you might not expect, like John Deere – a digitally integrated business where tractors take soil samples, beam the data to satellites and then back to seed and horticultural suppliers for analysis and subsequent development.”

“We argued that if a tractor company can do this and find it worthwhile then so could we. It meant we could completely rethink what a company in healthcare and consumer care would be like.”
– Sean Carney, Chief Design Officer for Royal Philips

The Executive Committee became fully supportive of the potential for exploring the future in this way.

We have now created a digital health suite in the Cloud where all our devices are streaming data in real time from across the complete continuum of users – patients, surgeons in theatre, cancer diagnostics, psychologists and remote diagnostics for patients living at home. Design is helping envision the future through a deep understanding of what the ‘best in class’ patient, user and clinician experience should be like to deliver the best clinical outcomes, whilst equally making sure there is a sound business case and return on investment for the hospital’s Chief Financial Officer.”


What do you see as your future challenges?

“Training more people in the co-creation processes (our own version of Design Thinking). We have recently introduced an education programme for 120,000 people called our co-create programme. We train them in the fundamental principles of design thinking, discovering, framing, ideating, building around solutions.

This has been successful across the business for dealing with a multitude of issues from supply chain to product development. The more people within Philips that we can engage in this programme the better business we will have, delivering improved experiences and outcomes for our customers and other stakeholders.

Engaging with potential customers.

The CEO now sees our co-create programme as being an ideal way of engaging top-level executives from potential customers in doing business with Philips. Together we can explore a customer’s potential in ways that will help give us a competitive edge.

Turning ‘design-thinking’ into ‘design-doing’.

By this I mean by being proactive in testing potential solutions with stakeholders, mixing design thinking with Lean and Agile principles to build concepts, testing those concepts first with 10 people, learn from that and take it to 100 people, then scale to 1000 and then 20,000 people before a big release. These are some of the most exciting challenges for the future.”

What do you want to be remembered for from your time with Philips?

“A few things. Creating long lasting connections between design and business and a deep understanding of the value it can bring. Ensuring that we always drive best-in-class design solutions and never compromise the integrity of our designs.

Becoming completely people-centric and using design to deliver better solutions as a result. Thinking all the time about every interaction with those who are touched by what we do. For example, in healthcare it is always our objective to create better outcomes for patients: faster healing, more people cured quickly with less problems, the rapid development of excellent products at lower cost.”

“Helping our customers use design as an integral part of the way they deliver their services, particularly by getting them to engage in the co-creation process and turning ‘design-thinking’ into ‘design-doing’.”
– Sean Carney, Chief Design Officer for Royal Philips

This article was first published in the Design in Business magazine (01/2015).

About: Sean Carney

Sean Carney is Chief Design Officer for Royal Philips and on the DBA Board of Directors. As head of the design competence across the company, he is leading global teams delivering insight-driven, meaningful innovations that bring value to people and business.

Sean joined Philips in March 2011. He has more than 25 years of experience as an international creative thought leader in design and management, focused on brand and user insight. He has a proven track record in building, leading and inspiring multi-disciplinary, award winning design teams across the U.S., Europe and Asia.

Sean pioneered a user-centered approach to brand design while working with Electrolux and subsequently applied his approach consulting with brands such as Iittala, Assa Abloy and more recently Hewlett Packard. He has a Masters in Industrial Design (Engineering) from Birmingham City University.


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