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Customer Gemba Studies — Secret for Enduring Product Success

Office cubicles have been around for so long they are now a basic expectation in offices in nearly every geographic region and industry. Its invention was recently detailed in an article titled "Birth of the Cube Farm" in the June 2014 Ann Arbor Observer magazine (vol. 38: No. 10 pp. 47-49. ISSN 0192 - 5717, by Grace Shackman and Nancy Deromedi)

According to the article, the original "office system" was the invention of Bob Propst, an inventor and artist working in the 1950s and 60s for Herman Miller, a Michigan-based furniture company. The idea was to make offices more efficient

The first iteration of the Action Office was styled by a New York artist. It was nice-looking, but difficult to assemble and not easy to work in. In other words, the furniture was "more about aesthetics than problem solving." Propst's concept for the second generation was to create an office system rather than individual pieces of furniture. The article states, "He started by studying how people actually worked and then developed a system that facilitates productivity.... The solution is easy if you can define the problem."

In his analysis, customer needs included:

Design requirements included:

illustration of office spaces

Intriguingly, around the same time Propst was developing the office cubicle concept, across the Pacific QFD was being born in Japan. In QFD, product developers learned to go to gemba to observe customers at work, document their pain points, and capture their "voice" for prioritization and transfer into design requirements.

QFD and gemba are among the strongest approaches to developing new products, services, business process. It drives innovation, as well. The QFD Symposium has produced plenty of published papers explaining the benefits of Gemba studies. You can view the abstracts and order the Transactions of each QFD Symposia from this page. Here is an example of QFD gemba study (school application).

The successful second generation office cubicle has endured in our workplace, thanks to Propst's willingness to put the customer needs in the center of his design rather than the artists, an approach that is more necessary today than ever in this global market. What Propst intuitively discovered is the design methodology of QFD and gemba, a system of tools for acquiring and analyzing VOC in order to drive innovation.

(photo of new airplane interior using Kansei Engineering)With QFD, instead of one person's vision or artistic sense, a team can design products with great customer satisfaction. What a benefit to growing businesses of any size! When we combine QFD with Emotional Quality Deployment (Kansei Engineering), we have a system to address both aesthetics and functionality.

New ways to capture the Voice of the Customer (VOC) was the topic of a keynote by Glenn Mazur, at the International Symposium on QFD in Istanbul in September 2014. The presentation drew attention to the evolution of different VOC and Gemba methods going back to the earliest days of QFD in Japan in the 1960s, extending into future gemba tools to integrate social media and Big Data with QFD.

The tools for gemba studies are also being included in the draft of the new ISO 16355 standard for QFD, so learning them would be essential for any global businesses. We invite you join our LinkedIn Group ISO 16355 or attend the QFD Green Belt® courses.

As for the workplace of tomorrow, one wonders what will be the future office design, given the changes in our work habits and technology since the Propst era. The combined approach (Gemba + QFD + Kansei) would be a perfect mode for exploring and developing the next big ideas, not just for future office design but for any product.

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