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An Apple a day, keeps competitors away!

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(image: an Apple a day)When speaking about QFD (Quality Function Deployment), I am frequently asked whether Apple Computer does it. Unfortunately, their non-disclosure agreements include supplier relationships, so I will have to leave that questioned unanswered.

But what I can say is that the late Steve Jobs had, in my opinion, such an intuitive grasp of the fundamentals of QFD that our formal tools and methods might have been redundant.

I recently came across an April 1, 1989 interview with Jobs in Inc. Magazine, by Bo Burlingham and George Gendron. Some of his remarks are worth repeating in light of what we know of QFD today.

INC.: Where do great products come from?

JOBS: I think really great products come from melding two points of view-the technology point of view and the customer point of view. You need both. You can't just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they'll want something new. It took us three years to build the NeXT computer. If we'd given customers what they said they wanted, we'd have built a computer they'd have been happy with a year after we spoke to them-not something they'd want now..

QFD Perspective

We see two common flows in the way QFD is practiced: forward and reverse. Forward QFD begins with the voice of the customer which is often a mixture of "what they want," that is product performance, features, and technology. Because customers rarely know what the future may bring, their voice is typically tied to the past or present.

As Jobs points out, the product may be sufficient for the past, but insufficient at the time of launch or during its useful life. You can ask customers what they want as a starting point of a QFD analysis. The tool for this analysis is the Customer Voice table; its purpose is to translate voice of customer (VOC) into true customer needs. In this table, we explore with customers why they want something.

For example, a customer in a café may state "I need a hot cup of coffee," but what they really need is "I am cold and I want to warm up." Using Jobs logic, you could produce a cup of coffee that was too hot to drink, thus forcing the customer to wait until it cooled down. You would give them what they asked (hot), but not really meet their needs (warm up).

In modern QFD, we define a customer need as being product-independent, and that is the first step in creating great products. "Hot" is a product feature and "warm me up" is a customer need.

In reverse QFD, we start with an emerging technology and work our way back to the underlying customer segment and needs that the new technology could address. If you are not familiar with this QFD flow, here is a paper (PDF) that can help you get started.

INC.: You mean the technology is changing too fast.

JOBS: Yeah, and customers can't anticipate what the technology can do. They won't ask for things that they think are impossible. But the technology may be ahead of them. If you happen to mention something, they'll say, "Of course, I'll take that. Do you mean I can have that, too?" It sounds logical to ask customers what they want and then give it to them. But they rarely wind up getting what they really want that way.

QFD Perspective

Since customers rarely know what the future may bring, the best they can do is guess. After all, we are the experts on the future of our technology, not our customers; if customers were experts, they wouldn't need us. (see "An Eight-legged Horse")

Customer guesses are based on their past experience and so fall short of what is possible, and they may not even ask. What we do in the Customer Voice table is use product related VOCs to derive true customer needs. Then, developers can innovate new technologies to meet high priority customer needs faster, better, cheaper.

INC.: It's got to be equally dangerous to focus too much on the technology.

JOBS: Oh, sure. You can get into just as much trouble by going into the technology lab and asking your engineers, "OK, what can you do for me today?" That rarely leads to a product that customers want or to one that you're very proud of building when you get done. You have to merge these points of view, and you have to do it in an interactive way over a period of time—which doesn't mean a week. It takes a long time to pull out of customers what they really want, and it takes a long time to pull out of technology what it can really give.

QFD Perspective

This is the reverse QFD flow. What can new technology do for which customers? It takes effort to translate technology back into customer needs and then determine which customer segments highly prioritize those needs. Once confirmed, then forward QFD is used to fine-tune the technology for usability, reliability, and other product dimensions.

JOBS: Ever since I visited Japan in the early '80s. And let me add that the same is true of sales and marketing. You need a sales and marketing organization that is oriented toward educating customers rather than just taking orders, providing a real service rather than moving boxes. This is extremely important. For most of your customers, after all, the sales folks are your company. So you've really got to pay attention to that. The point is that our philosophy is not a product philosophy. It's a philosophy of how we go about things, and it affects everything-finance, information systems...

QFD Perspective

Sales and marketing play two critical roles in QFD. The first role is obvious and that is to educate customers and sell products. That means that one of the outputs of QFD is good sales collateral and advertising messages. If you only do House of Quality (HoQ), you will miss these dimensions.

However, in Blitz QFD®'s Maximum Value table, these are essential columns for most products. If you are not familiar with this, the following case study from a beer company can help get you started.

The second role is during development phase 0 (product concept definition) and phase 1 (customer requirements), when sales and marketing are teaming up with R&D and engineering to visit customers in the "gemba" (where and when customers work and play), and to acquire and analyze VOC.

Finally, Jobs makes the case that the customers see your company as a "black box" operation. They don't care who does what, or what department is responsible, etc. That's not their problem — they have problems of their own that are far more important to them. Thus, a customer buys a package of product, software, and service and they should be seamless. This requires a systems level perspective and QFD is a powerful approach to this.

Once we define and prioritize true customer needs, the Maximum Value table can be used to examine and select what gets done in hardware, what gets done in software, and what gets done in human-ware (service). The interfaces can be then worked out for upcoming product generations as technology evolves.

One of the advantages of QFD is that these intuitive approaches can be systematized beyond a single individual. This improves communication, training of new-hires, and long-term integration and adoption in the organization. Only then can we truly say we are doing QFD.

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