Applying ‘LEAN’ to disaster relief

Unless you’ve been marooned on a remote island for the past 3 months, you will have heard about the horrific bush fires which have engulfed the east coast of Australia.

Over the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to participate in one of the many grassroots disaster relief efforts which have sprung up across the nation.

As a practitioner of ‘LEAN’ design thinking and design doing for some of Australia’s largest companies, I thought it would be worthwhile considering this real-life manifestation of these methodologies, and the positive impact they have had in our fire-affected communities along the southern coast of NSW.

Image for post
Image for post

The catalyst.

As with any project, there is a catalyst which insights action.

In the corporate context, this might take the form of a disruptive startup which has changed the landscape of your industry, the changing needs of your workforce etc.

In our case, the catalyst was the unprecedented fires which tore (and continue to pose a very real threat) through the communities along the east coast.

Image for post
Image for post

The conventional wisdom.

As with every company I have consulted or worked with, there is a ‘conventional wisdom’, which has worked perfectly well for comparable situations in the past, that suddenly no longer seems to work. If this ‘conventional wisdom’ were still fit for purpose, there would be no need for taking a different approach, it would simply be business as usual.

In this case, the conventional wisdom was to donate to the established charities such as The Australian Red Cross, St. Vincent de Paul, and The Salvation Army to name a few. This is what I, along with millions of others from across the globe initially did, expecting that these donations would be swiftly and effectively put to good work aiding those in need.

To my surprise, this was not the case. There were numerous remote communities who were in genuine need of the exact supplies which the media and major charities were discouraging the broader community from donating. The conventional wisdom approach was not working.

Image for post
Image for post

Build, measure, learn.

After hearing the stories from communities who were in need of supplies such as respirators, eye drops, baby formula, bedding etc. we decided that we would need to step in and provide the support which was required.

As with any such project, there is a tendency to enter a state of analysis paralysis. This is one of the primary causes of the growing pandemic of ‘Human-Centred Design (HCD) fatigue’. There is a seemingly never-ending cycle of insight gathering, focus groups, and depth interviews — culminating in a great deal of theoretical understanding, yet no practical progress to show for it.

Starting is always the hardest part, it can feel scary and very ambiguous. It also provides the most concrete value and the highest quality insights you can possibly get.

For our initial convoy of supplies, we loaded 12 4X4s up with everything we could possibly think of — from baby supplies, canned food and water to medical supplies and pet food, and drove down to community centres and fire stations in the fire-affected areas.

As we went, we asked what was required in the different areas, how they needed support, and noted down everything we learned.

Image for post
Image for post


As we spoke to those affected by and fighting the fires, we not only built a better understanding of the situation on the ground, but we also established direct communications with those who were seeking aid. Fire stations, community centres, and even locals could reach out to us directly, and let us know what they needed. We could then respond within a matter of days, and in some cases, hours with the required supplies being convoyed down.

This is the nirvana state which we strive for within companies — a true partnership between providers of products & services and customers, enabling rapid adaptation and provision for people’s needs in real-time.

The process of iteration, learning and adapting to needs becomes the real product, rather than the physical ‘thing’ which changes hands.

Image for post
Image for post


For me, this has been one of the most memorable and impactful examples of design thinking and ‘design doing’ in action. It wasn’t a clean well thought out project with abundant resources and terabytes of customer interviews. It was a rapid response to a slow, bureaucratic system, which was unable to provide the realtime support that our nation required. We moved fast, listened, learned and adapted instantly. This is what allows us to make a positive impact on what continues to be one of Australia’s darkest hours.

If you’re in Sydney and would like to donate supplies to Fire Relief Run, reach out on Instagram: @firereliefrun for a current list of requested items and a drop location near you. If you’re interstate or international and can’t donate supplies, you can donate cash here:

You can also follow along on the Instagram handle above to see exactly who is receiving your donations and how they are serving the community.

Image for post
Image for post

I have made a career in Experience Design and Strategy. I currently work with Hypothesis Consulting. @jodancook everywhere

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store