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Fried Rice and Cement — What's the connection?

Chicken fried rice is nice, but why settle for the ordinary when you can have authentic home-made Hong Kong dim-sum?

While recently visiting a restaurant in the "China Town" of a big city in the U.S., we were curious that at every table around us, all the tourists were ordering fried rice, egg rolls, and sweet-and-sour something.

Story of Fried Rice

(photo - Fried Rice. source: Krista on wikipedia, )  The American love for Chinese food is indisputable. According to Chinese Restaurant News, there are nearly 41,000 Chinese restaurants across the 50 states at this writing, over three times as many as the 12,380 McDonald's franchises. Yet, like at McDonald's, people were consistently ordering the basic familiar foods, at the expense of the exotic and usually similarly priced items.

The established restaurants have no incentive to change this — fried rice is usually prepared with cold rice that holds its texture nicely and does not become pasty when stirred with other ingredients. This leads to easy and speedy preparation as well as low cost, and because rice is readily available in so many countries, Chinese-style fried rice has become a popular staple not only in America but in other countries: Cha Han in Japan, Arroz Frito in Cuba, Sinangag in the Philippines, Chaulafan in Ecuador, Nasi Goreng in Indonesia, and Chaufa in Peru, to name a few. In each new transplant, the original product concept goes through some adaptation to the local taste and then fast descends to a commodity-like status.

This reminded us of Ypsi-Johnny, a Chinese native who immigrated over 30 years ago with an aspiration to feed Americans his award-winning Chinese cuisine. He used to lament how the customers would come in his restaurant only to order fried rice and egg rolls — the dishes he considered far below his culinary skills.

Johnny boasted that he made lots of money, filling 1,000 take-out orders of fried rice and egg rolls a week at such low cost and high mark-up, but that's what the customers wanted. In fact, he had tried to offer more exotic dishes, but soon learned that customers had come to see all Chinese food as "the same" and their expectations rarely exceeded fried rice and egg rolls, usually the cheapest items on the menu.

Story of Cement

So what does this have to do with cement, or QFD for that matter?

image of cement workIn a 2002 presentation at the Symposium on QFD, "Using QFD to Improve Technical Support to Make Commodity Products More Competitive", the issue of breaking the commodity cycle was addressed.

In this case study, GCC Cement had learned through QFD that while to customers, cement was all "the same" and its pricing was commodity-based on the lowest cost provider, there was an opportunity to offer better technical support than their competitors. In other words, while cement might appear "the same," its formulation could be optimized according to application. This lead to better construction and greater value to the building contractor's customer, and thus they could demand a higher price than the commodity.

Of course, customers did not demand this directly, since they thought of cement as a commodity. But through the QFD study and gemba * visits, they were able to see opportunities where if their customers had access to more cement expertise, they could offer better performance to their customers. What they learned, therefore, was that relying only on the "voice of the customer (VOC)" is not enough to be profitable and competitive these days. It is necessary to go beyond what customers "order" to find out why and other circumstances that are unvoiced.

This is what the tools and methods in modern Blitz QFD® ** are designed to do. They start with VOC, but after translations and transformations, are able to discover unspoken and unmet needs that are important to the customers.

In the restaurant example, QFD might research why customers are coming to a Chinese restaurant. Are they looking for something different, exotic, and yet safely familiar? Do they expect healthy Asian or vegetarian offerings? Do they want something fast? Based on this, the chef might find a way to prepare dishes that meet these unspoken needs?

Of course, the "offering" must not stop at the menu design only. Manufacturing (cooking) must assure the "healthy" or vegetarianism. Thus, lard must be avoided for both health and religious reasons, fish stock must be clearly labeled as not vegetarian, etc.

Further, the menu should help customers make choices that meet their needs. Dishes named "Lucky Family" hardly convey any dietary meaning, unless the intent was that you were lucky to survive the meal! Explanations like "in special sauce" might be more descriptive to convey both the exotic and the familiar, a unique combination of everyday spices, for example.

How To Break Out Of The Commodity Mindset

The point is this: New product Development is the best opportunity for companies to break out of the commodity mindset. By coupling proper VOC analysis to understand unspoken customer needs with downstream QFD tools to assure that all internal activities support the fulfillment of those needs, we can offer unique products and services to customers that not only exceed their expectations, but will command premium pricing due to their superior value.

The skills and supporting tools do this are taught in the public courses (see the links below). The QFD Institute programs were created under the directive of Dr. Akao, one of QFD's founders, and combine best practices from QFD experts around the world.

It is worth noting that in QFD, the House of Quality (HoQ) and other "traditional" methods have become commoditized like fried rice and egg rolls. The HoQ is the most familiar and written about tool, and is taught in every Six Sigma / Lean Sigma and university design/engineering courses. Yet, it hardly does justice to the full range of QFD tools and methods that are available from "top chef" organizations that specialize in QFD which have learned their craft under the guidance of the methodology creators and masters in Japan.

* 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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