As a lean practitioner and former plant manager, I have always believed that customers need to be central to any business since, ultimately, they are the ones who pay the bills. It is in our best interest to continually deliver more value to them, exceed their expectations, and (simply put) keep them happy.
So what makes customers happy? That can be a tough question to answer. Each customer is unique. Some value quality over delivery; some cost over quality, while still others want all three with a cherry on top. Throw in specific things like approvals, certifications and compliance requirements, and it can be a lot to handle.
In an effort to sort all of this out, many organizations have turned to Market Feedback Analysis (MFA). A favorite tool of many, MFAs represent a direct line of communication between customers and suppliers to define what is needed/wanted in order to provide the most value. Companies like them because responses are tangible and actionable. They also provide a “safety net” of sorts when developing plans for the future, because if anyone should question the plans that result from the MFA, all folks have to do is point to it and say, “Well, that’s what they said they wanted!”
Here’s the wrinkle: Often, customers don’t have any more idea what they want than you do! Henry Ford once said “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” He was right. Although customers define value, it’s not up to them to tell us (as their trusted supplier) what would be more valuable to them -- that’s our job to figure out.
I’ve watched companies spend hundreds of man-hours preparing, soliciting, collecting, dissecting and debating MFAs in order to build their business plans. While the intent of all of this is correct, in reality it’s no more effective than me asking my 8-year-old daughter what she wants for dinner each night. She’ll always say “ice cream” because she doesn’t understand as much as I do about the nutrition her growing body needs. Likewise, customers will always say “the product you currently make for us but with better quality, faster speed and a cheaper price” because they don’t have the product knowledge that we do. In other words -- they’ll ask for a faster horse.
Just as Respect for People is a pillar of lean, building a relationship is the foundation of that pillar. "
Consider this: For a long time, people used film cameras. Over the years, consumers used their buying power to drive them to become smaller, lighter and to take better photos. Once digital technology took over, it didn’t take long before film cameras were obsolete. The cycle has since repeated itself and today the same fate holds true for digital cameras. Aside from pros and amateur hobbyists, most of us simply use the cameras that are included in our phones. Had camera companies initially asked us what we wanted, I’m not sure any of us would have said “a camera that doesn’t use film” or “a device that I can text, email, call and take pictures with.” The folks with the knowledge about what was possible are the ones who developed these products in hopes of providing a better solution to our problem of needing a more convenient way to take pictures.
I’m not proposing that we work in a vacuum -- that’s a sure-fire path to failure. Instead of using overly formal MFAs, though, I instead advocate going to the gemba. Go spend time, face-to-face, with your customers. Be present and sincere; get to know them as people. Just as Respect for People is a pillar of lean, building a relationship is the foundation of that pillar. For some, the annual MFA is the only time our customers hear from us. If that’s the case, how valuable will the feedback be from those customers? How much effort will they spend filling out the forms? Furthermore, how solid of an action plan can you build based off of half-hearted feedback?
Ditch the MFA, and use some of the time you gain from doing so to get to know your customers better. You’ll achieve better results in the long run, and who knows, you may just avoid building a faster horse!
Paul W. Critchley founded New England Lean Consulting after enjoying a successful career implementing Lean Principles throughout the Automotive, Medical Device and Aerospace industries. He is co-author of “The Whole Professional, A Collection of Essays to Help You Achieve a Full and Satisfying Life”. He can be reached at http://www.newenglandleanconsulting.com.