The greatest leverage from an investment in quality management comes from
improving the design function. Other corporate initiatives--statistical
controls, quality circles, TQM, and ad hoc business process mapping--pale by
comparison. Improved design detects and solves problems much earlier.
Despite all the powerful evidence supporting a customer-focused orientation,
many companies revert to a "Bondo" mindset when it comes to product development
and improvement. A portfolio of analytical tools and advanced technology hasn't
prevented the tendency to fill dents and smooth out surfaces with quick-drying
putty. As in autobody repair, the fix can take the form of an illusion.
Companies must use the right material on the right surface.
Botched development. Design problems stem from too little time spent defining the product, often with little pure input from potential users. The result: missed schedules and disagreements between research, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing groups. On-the-fly redesign and retrofitting invariably translate into increased costs, complaints, and loss of market share. Such a situation paralyzes and polarizes the whole company.
One interdepartmental language and tool kit that addresses performance over function surmounts the problem. Two highly synergistic methodologies achieve such a transformation: Voice of the Customer (VOC) and Quality Function Deployment (QFD). Both directly influence communications, time-to-market, quality, cost, and breakthrough innovation.
VOC, an on-going process, anticipates customers' needs, which keeps companies on track. QFD translates those needs into the requirements that will lead design and development efforts, enabling the creation of results.
These tools provide a framework for linking the customer's voice through a company's development process. A product-driven company provides a clear prioritization and shared focal point for all departments. This, in turn, eliminates frustration and redesigns, and reduces incremental engineering changes. Together, VOC and QFD drive greater cross-functional cooperation.
Process links. The two processes also link the design function with an organization's broader improvement efforts, such as TQM-without being overwhelmed by them. These quality tools quickly integrate a customer's knowledge with a company's resources to help create successful new products.
To create and sustain a high-performance design capability, the entire organization must remake its product-out orientation into a market-in approach. Such a revolution requires insight and guts to incite massive change in this direction. Through it all, the customer serves as the unifying force. Listening, understanding, interpreting, and translating the users' perspective becomes everybody's job. It's not enough to offer superior quality or low cost products. Today's winning company must anticipate new markets quickly and innovate constantly.
Ask the Manager
Q: How do you reorganize, implement, and reward the design function to capture fully the customer's voice?
A: The approach is intuitively obvious: You establish the need, set the direction, and deploy the change. Define the scope of change, gather customer needs, survey their importance and satisfaction, and develop lasting performance measures.
To define the approach, assign process ownership and consolidate all pertinent resources and procedures. Gathering customer needs involves using a proven Voice of the Customer methodology to identify key words and phrases, winnow them down, and establish an accurate hierarchy of needs. The survey component measures actual perceptions of importance and levels of satisfaction in delivery.
Q: Where does a company start?
A: First, understand the gap between customers' needs and desires and an organization's capabilities. Proper qualification and quantification of this gap results in an easily communicated vision, a sense of urgency, and a viable framework for chartering cross-functional teams. Leaders need to ensure that everyone adopts an overlying mindset that views design and development tasks from the outside looking in.
Q: Can we get VOC and QFD up and running by ourselves?
A: Certainly. However, many organizations haven't used these tools before. Developing an internal team of multi-disciplined experts with relevant experience is difficult and time consuming. You might be able to do it alone, you might just need help getting started, or you may want a long-term coach and catalyst.