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An Eight-legged Horse

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(photo: Henry Ford)

"If Henry Ford had asked customers what they wanted, he would have heard customer voices (VOC) like 'I want an eight-legged horse' that no one could possibly satisfy."

Ford's genius was the insight to go beyond the spoken word.

As a member of several Lean Six Sigma forums, I am somewhat disappointed that VOC is taken on face value as a product specification or requirement. It is rarely questioned or considered that the customer might have an incomplete or inaccurate set of requirements.

I think this is because Lean folks look at removing waste from their processes, Six Sigma folks look at reducing variation in their processes, and Design for Six Sigma folks look at reducing variation in design. Everybody is looking only at their internal products and processes.

QFD presents a more holistic approach.

(image: 8-legged horse)In Mr. Ford's turn of the 20th century era, customers' only experience with land transportation was the horse. They had no crystal ball to predict a future with automobiles. So, when questioned about what improvements they wanted, they equated the number of legs with load and speed. The more legs, the better. Perhaps a customer's metaphor might even have extended to insects (6 legs) and spiders (8 legs) for their impressive strength and quickness.

Customers rely on past experience to express themselves as best they can. In new product development (NPD), our goal is to create the future experience, however. We should take VOC not as a directive, but rather as a customer's attempt to explain their metaphor..

So what is the best way to use VOC?

At the 2013 ASQ Healthcare Division reception, Dr. Ken Musselman, Strategic Collaboration Director of Purdue University's Regenstrief Center for Healthcare Engineering, summed it up nicely -- "Engineers need to 'walk the floor' of the hospital" to truly understand what customers need.

In QFD, we call this going to the customer's gemba so that we can see for ourselves what their problems, opportunities, and image concerns are. It is in the gemba that we discover the unknown unknowns that can become true product differentiators. Surveys are great for validating the known knowns, and questionnaires and focus groups help clarify the known unknowns. Anybody can do that, including our competitors. Acting with the same information, we have little else to differentiate other than on price. This leads to commoditization.

To achieve premium pricing, we must act on something of great value to customers that they, and the competitors, do not yet know nor can specify. This is what we learn in the gemba.


For example, when one hospital found many patients complaining about poor sleep, their first response was to give them sleeping pills. They did not ask the patients why it was hard to fall sleep or stay asleep, why they felt sleep-deprived, or why addressing this was important. It turned out that patients were awakened by the early rounds of medical checks (such as blood tests) starting at 4:00 am. Others suffered anxiety about upcoming procedures that were inadequately explained.

Another example is a case study involving noise abatement in a private elementary school. "Often organizations act on a situation without fully determining the true needs of the stakeholders that would reveal the important context or unstated factors. Reactive solutions might address the problem inadequately or sometimes even exacerbate it, while wasting resources," stated Ken Mazur, the presenter at The 24th Symposium on QFD (2012).

The school's first reaction and remedy was to build a wall to contain the children's voices from penetrating the library. They never asked the students or staff that use the library. After construction was completed, the school realized the new wall did not solve the noise problem; it actually amplified it. It was not until a Blitz QFD® gemba study was conducted that the true cause of the noise was identified - teachers and parents talking in hallways. This project further clarified and aligned the needs of the library users with the school mission as well as the budget, arriving at fresh solutions that were both technically and financially feasible.

So, the next time your customer asks for an "eight-legged horse," take a trip to their gemba to uncover their true needs; don't stop at the stated VOC. Never dismiss your customer's exotic or strange requests; find out why they want them. While your competitors are trying to figure out a way to add legs to the horse, you can focus your technical efforts on the automobile of the future.

* Gemba is a Japanese word that means the place where the real action takes place. This is where a consumer puts the product or service into use. Gemba visits provide an opportunity to see the whole picture from the customer's perspective, not from the internal point of view of the producer. Gemba visit should be planned carefully; the specific techniques are taught in QFD Green Belt® Course.

** Blitz QFD® follows Essential Path, focusing on value discovery based on the recognition that some tasks may not be on the critical path but could be far more value-adding than others. It empowers companies to deliver the maximum value for the effort invested, while shortening development time as well as the traditional QFD implementation cycle -- without increasing risk. The method is especially valuable in IT / high tech areas that have legacy risk consideration as well as any projects that demand faster, focused product development.

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