Lonely by design

By: 
March 04, 1996

Newton, IA--One Dependability Square. The address says it all. Ever since Frederick Louis Maytag vowed his products would not end up like the rusting farm machines he saw abandoned in the cornfields of Iowa, his company has been synonymous with quality.

Today, Maytag receives, and answers, more than 200 "love letters" a month, attesting to the product line's enduring popularity. Those loyal customer ads from the sixties--"Mrs. Trevisan babied every one of her seven children, but never her Maytag"--still apply.

A survey published in the December 11, 1995 issue of Fortune magazine ranks Maytag first in customer satisfaction among all manufacturers of household appliances. Conducted for Fortune by the University of Michigan business school and the American Society for Quality Control, the survey sampled the opinions of 30,000 people. Interviews focused on "perceptions of service, quality, and value; how well the product lived up to expectations; and how willing people were to pay more for it."

Similarly, respondents to a major-appliance dealers study, as reported in the April '95 issue of Appliance Manufacturer, rated Maytag number one in terms of how consumers perceive product quality.

The "dependability people," however, are not about to rest on such laurels. Changing distribution patterns within the industry, continually improved manufacturing techniques, and aggressive Department of Energy regulations dictate a proactive stance regarding the competition. "These days," states Maytag President Dick Haines, "we need to be a leader not just in quality, but in technology."

Haines has the right man leading the charge. As Vice President of Research and Development, Curran Cotton is free to indulge in his two passions: technology and teamwork. He exudes enthusiasm and appears not to need, or want, much sleep. Stories of his boundless energy are easy to come by in the corridors of Maytag.

Early in the '70s, for example, Cotton enrolled as a student at Iowa State University, despite his duties as senior design engineer at Maytag. He wanted to learn about something new called microprocessors. Because he worked during the day, Cotton had the professor videotape and mail the class instructions.

"Study, homework, and exams," he recalls, "became my night job." Add to that schedule a very active role in community involvement (Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, Boy Scouts, foreign exchange program, and the Newton Children's Center, to name a few) and one really does begin to question his sleep habits. Yet, well before the PLC, or PC, Cotton's lab project served as the company's first in-house electronic controller.

A tough business. Being a quality leader demands such anticipation. "We operate in an intensely competitive environment," says Cotton. "If you go back to the sixties, you could buy a mid-size car for $2,000; a washing machine cost $250. Now, a mid-size auto approaches $20,000, but most washers still sell for less than $400."

If washing machines had kept pace with cars, adds Bill Beer, VP of marketing, they would price for more than $1,000 today. "The big home appliances," he says, "are truly a bargain."

Maintaining that bargain is a constant challenge. "As we build in quality, we must also take out cost," Cotton explains. One way to do that, he believes, is through technology partnerships. Maytag, for example, has a co-operative R&D agreement with the Department of Energy to develop a porcelain enamel replacement.

The process of enameling sheet steel with porcelain is not only expensive, it takes up significant real estate on the factory floor. To reduce cost without sacrificing quality, the company has already switched from electric- to gas-fired furnaces. But the new material--an organic finish that will have an abrasion resistance approaching that of porcelain--promises further savings.

Another example: The fuzzy-logic in Maytag's IntelliSense(TM) dishwasher cuts significant time from the product development cycle, yet gives the consumer convenience and energy saving features not available before (see Design News, 4-10-95, p. 69). Introduced in 1995, IntelliSense determines the amount of food soil in the dishwasher, as well as the presence of detergent and rinse aid. It senses wash arm rotation and water temperature, and tracks patterns established in previous washes.

Based on this input, as well as time lapse between loads, IntelliSense calculates the optimal wash and rinse cycles.

Partnering pays. Product development began when Honeywell's Micro Switch Division, looking to transfer defense technology to the commercial arena, shopped around a co-destiny proposal to the major appliance manufacturers. The idea was to create a win-win situation: Honeywell's experience with smart sensors would help its partner lead the appliance industry. The partner, in turn, would provide inroads to an industry where Honeywell had little input, thus opening new markets.

"Without Curran taking the ball and representing Honeywell to his peers in management," says Tom Landowski, then VP of engineering for Micro Switch, "we would never have been able to work together--I'm convinced of that. He was the focal point."

Landowski, who now works as VP of marketing and sales, also attributes much of the program's success to Cotton's character. "Generally, I find engineers have a not-invented-here attitude. In this case," he recalls, "Curran had enough self-confidence and trust to hand over a major portion of the design effort. He put company interest before his ego."

Not only that, Landowski claims Cotton was great to work with--always willing to look at doing things differently. "Whenever the joint engineering team gave a presentation," he says, "it was difficult to tell who worked for whom. Curran really did a lot to create that culture."

Cotton's in-house colleagues agree. "Things have really changed in R&D under Curran's leadership," claims Bob Paulson, VP of manufacturing. Back in the '70s, Paulson and Cotton attended several National Management Association courses together, and would discuss subjects like empowerment in the parking lot after class. "Without knowing we would one day be in a position to implement such ideas," Paulson says, "we were being trained to work in a cooperative and concurrent atmosphere."

Paulson points to Cotton's efforts to establish a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis group two years ago. "The group turned out to be a great way of getting our engineers in manufacturing and R&D working together in a structured atmosphere." Results, he says, have been two-fold: Engineers from both groups can make good progress in a hurry, and manufacturing has a lot more influence on design.

What kind of leader is Cotton? Consider this piece of guiding philosophy: "The level of milk in the pitcher," he is fond of saying, "will rise to meet the thirst of the encampment."

Cotton's explanation runs like this: "Back when I was a design engineer, people used to complain about me. 'Why is Cotton getting this machine? Why don't I have that equipment?' The reason they didn't have it was they weren't thirsty enough. If my team needs equipment to get the job done, and is thirsty enough, I'll do my darndest to get it."

Example? Model Shop Supervisor Mike Johnson, after bucking to expand the prototyping capabilities of his shop, now has six CNC Bridgeport mills and a new EDM machine. "He's so thirsty, he wants my floor space," jokes Cotton, who's office abuts the model shop.

"Curran and his colleagues at the VP level set the strategic direction," adds Patrick Griffin, manager of manufacturing planning. "They tell us where they want to go, provide the support we need, then leave us alone and let us go there."

Quality in, quality out. While technology alliances such as the one with Honeywell promise to keep Maytag in the forefront of technology, partnering with suppliers contributes to quality. In 1991, the company launched its Certified Supplier Process (CSP). Based on a formalized survey of each supplier company's quality management system, followed up by a random audit, CSP helps Maytag maintain quality coming through the door.

"If we don't have quality at the source," says Kent Baker, vice president, materials, "it is difficult and expensive to design it in later. Continuous improvement demands standardization, which is what the Certified Supplier Process gives us. It also facilitates communications with our vendor companies."

Much of CSP involves documentation regarding statistical process controls (SPC). That's where Cotton gets involved. "Curran sets the standards," Baker says.

For Cotton, however, SPC is more than a standardized quality management tool. It is another means of empowerment. Working with his colleagues in manufacturing, Cotton implements in-house SPC with each manufactured component. The idea: Eliminate waste by correcting problems at their source.

"SPC allows us to take the jobs of what were formerly roving inspectors working for the Quality Control Department, and transfer that obligation to the station operators themselves,"explains manufacturing's Griffin. Vice president of human resources Mike Reusswig puts it another way, "By pushing decision making to the factory floor, we get everybody involved."

Working together. Getting everyone involved proved critical in shortening the product development cycle for Maytag's ACCU TRACa data acquisition system. Produced in direct response to the needs of route operators and other owners of commercial laundry equipment, ACCU TRAC uses two-way infrared data transmission technology to send and retrieve fields of information, and a software package to process the data.

The first-of-its-kind system offers commercial buyers accurate accountability, complete money tracking, improved security, and service efficiency. Its control unit can be used to "set up" the data acquisition appliance, while the security system keeps track of any service door and coin box entries, authorized or not.

"The unique aspect of ACCU TRAC," Cotton recounts, "was the teaming between research and development, the commercial sales force, and the ultimate customer." Initially, Cotton introduced the concept to a group of commercial distributors gathered together at a Multi-Housing Laundry Association Show. "If you tell me what you will buy," he said to them, "we'll design it."

Making the distributor part of the design process required substantial training, since ACCU TRAC's mix of electronics and software exceeded the technology of existing commercial machines. Maytag, therefore, flew groups of engineers to various distributor organizations not only to explain and teach the system, but to help establish and monitor beta sites for customer feedback.

"This was where we really stretched the concept of concurrent engineering," Cotton marvels. "The project not only involved cross-functional engineering teams, but R&D working hand-and-glove with sales."

Because of the success of this close association, and the promise of further inter-department collaboration on future product introductions, Cotton emphasizes the importance of verbal communication skills among his engineers. He has also co-authored a paper on the subject at Iowa State University. "Even when we unveil a new machine at a gala opening," he says, "my engineers are at their places on the podiums and in the break-out sessions, explaining the technology. The ability to speak and communicate clearly is extremely important."

Lifetimes of service. What concurrent engineering, cross-functionality, and other buzzwords all boil down to, claims Cotton, is teamwork. "When you have a group of relatively reasonable people of one accord," he likes to say, "you're going to get something done."

Looking around the table at any management meeting, he sees not only a group of dedicated professionals, but long-time colleagues who have learned to work together. People like Kent Baker from Materials, with 23 years of Maytag service; Sales VP Jerry Malone, with 35 years; Bill Beer of Marketing and Mike Reusswig, Human Resources, 22 years each; Bob Paulson, VP of Manufacturing, 32 years--even Frank Ross, Director of Product Design Engineering and old Air Force buddy who introduced Cotton to Maytag in the first place.

"Maytag is not a turnstyle operation," comments President Dick Haines, himself a 25-year man. "There has to be a commitment to come and work in a small community like Newton."

But Cotton cautions that "when you're out here in the cornfields, it's tempting to think you are the biggest on the block. Maytag drives the local economy and dominates the news. So we can't let our 100-year quality heritage become a liability. We need to keep our heads above--and our sights beyond--the tops of the corn, to stay ahead of the pack."

That's why the company plans a 1996 introduction of its new horizontal-axis washing machine. Developed with future Department of Energy calculations in mind, the front load design uses substantially less water, and is far more energy efficient, than conventional top loaders.

Bringing the unit to production will not be easy. "By trying to make the horizontal concept inviting to the consumer," states Director of Industrial Design Bill Swartz, "we had to take a whole new approach as to how users interface with it. In accomplishing that," he warns, "we have not made it easy for our engineers."

That, however, is just the way Curran Cotton likes it. "Thirty-four years ago I asked myself, 'How exciting could designing clothes washers be?'" "Well," he says, "it's just amazing what you can do with a washing machine."

Coincidence only? With 34 years at Maytag, and 18 U.S. patents to his name, Curran Cotton has been around as long as Ol' Lonely. The company launched its famous repairman ad--symbol of Maytag dependability--in 1967.

Quality transcends product
Among the many letters Maytag receives praising its products, the occasional criticism turns up. Cotton, however, was taken aback one evening when his own son called to complain: The washing machine was drowning out the football game on TV.

"I know where your washer is, and I know where your television is," the VP of R&D replied. "Why don't you close the door?" But the door was closed. Cotton then suggested his son place the telephone receiver near the washer so he could hear for himself. Yes, it was noisy--too noisy for a Maytag.

Next step: Cotton turned on his machine. It generated a different, far quieter sound. "Stay on the line," he instructed his son, "and I'll call Craig Thies, manager of laundry design engineering." And that's how, on a Sunday night, Maytag's chief research engineer found himself involved in a conference call between three people and two washing machines.

Fanatical? Not really. Maytag not only responds to criticisms directly, but will fly an engineer to the problem scene when necessary. Often the problem may not be the product, says Jerry Malone, VP of sales. "Mrs. John Doe doesn't know that somebody didn't level the machine properly," he points out, "and she doesn't really care. She just expects it to run."

Because all problems come back to the product, Malone continues, Maytag pays close attention to any complaint. "We don't just satisfy our customers, which is a neutral thing, we try to give them more than they anticipate."

What about the noisy washer? At the request of Thies, the motor manufacturer, an important corporate supplier, isolated the problem: the motor's natural frequency was too close to its operating frequency in the washer. The supplier has since revised the design to correct this resonance condition.

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