Idea Storm Blog – Design Thinking and the Funeral Parlour Problem



Indian and White not allowed…

Late last year the National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa (Nafupa) released a statement that Indian and White-owned funeral businesses would no longer be allowed to operate in Black townships and villages to conduct funerals.

The reason given was so that the township funeral businesses could be built up and that money spent by people living in the township would stay within the township.

No matter the justification or the good intentions of Nafupa, it is obviously a decision that shows bias, prejudice and discrimination of one race over others. Unfortunately this is not an isolated example in South Africa.

Pyramid of hate

The Anti-Defamation League has produced a Pyramid of Hate that starts with bias, leads through to prejudice and discrimination and ends with genocide.


Xenophobia is unfortunately a reality in South Africa and if the announcements of Nafupa become a normal occurrence then we run the risk of moving beyond economic and employment discrimination through to bias-motivated violence and if nothing changes, even genocide.

How did Nafupa make this decision?

I don’t have any inside knowledge as to the decision-making process within Nafupa and so this is pure speculation on my part. I am also assuming that Nafupa are making decisions that are in the best interests of their members and have a desire to uplift and improve both the economy and living standards of townships across South Africa. I can imagine the executive committee getting together, discussing the situation and coming up with the easiest and most obvious solution - to ban Indian and White funeral operators.

But is banning Indian and White operators the most effective solution? How do they enforce it? Will it improve the profits of the funeral profession within townships?

This to me clearly shows that organisations need to be taught how to approach problems and make decisions differently. I think Design Thinking is a vital tool for this so let’s consider this example from that perspective.

A new way of thinking

If we approached the funeral parlour problem from a Design Thinking perspective, this is the process that would be followed:

1. Empathy:

This involves studying and interviewing the customers and citizens involved, in this case black funeral parlours and their customers.


Interview questions could include:

  • Why are people in black townships using funeral parlours owned by people outside the township?

  • What issues do you as a black funeral parlour face?

  • Do you possess the sufficient business training to market and run your business effectively?

  • Are there advantages that black funeral parlour owners have, that externally owned parlours don’t have?

There are dozens of other questions that could be asked but the idea is to get a very good understanding of the situation and be able to emphasize with all the parties involved.

2. Define:

Taking the outcomes of the interviews, and other ethnographic research, the problem definitions can be defined and “How might we…?” statements created.

Examples of these would be:

  • Theme: Township residents don’t use black owned parlours:

  • How might we improve the black owned parlours within the townships that they become the default choice?

  • Theme: Black funeral parlours don’t have sufficient business knowledge to run their businesses well:

  • How might we put a training program in place that will equip black funeral parlours with basic business training?

  • Theme: Funeral parlour ownership:

  • How might we make sure that the majority of black funeral parlours are owned by black people living in the townships they service?

3. Ideation.

Now Nafupa would hold a workshop and invite people from across the association to brainstorm how to solve the design challenges within each “How might we” statement.

The outcome of this is that a single best solution, for each “How might we” statement would be selected and a storyboard created for each solution.

4. Prototype and Test:

The management team of Nafupa would then meet to consider the findings of the workshop and approve the ideas they believe are worth pursuing.

The ideas would then either be prototyped and tested within an area of South Africa, or an action plan created for the implementation of the plan. The prototype or action plan would need to be measurable and refined as the project is implemented.

So why is the Design Thinking approach not being used?

Time and effort! It is much easier for an organisation to default to the obvious solutions. These solutions, as illustrated by the Nafupa example, can lead to unintended consequences, and even if made with the best intentions, be divisive and dangerous for South Africa as a country (pyramid of hate).

I think it is much better to take the time to use the Design Thinking framework that will come up with solutions that work for the customers or citizens involved and have a much higher chance of success.

Design Thinking as the way forward…

I believe that the time is coming when the government, trade unions and other organisations, will take the time to make better decisions that will improve the lives of South Africans.

Is there a way that Design Thinking can be introduced and adopted?

We at Idea Storm are committed to being evangelists and driving the adoption of Design Thinking. If you would like to find out more on how we can assist, or get involved, then please contact us.

These views are my own and do not represent the views of the company I work for.


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