Customer Needs, a Driver for Turnaround and Continuous Improvement…Or Is It?

As a novice, in one of my early projects, tasked with improving process performance and quality of output for our customers, I set out from the onset on gathering customer needs for the process. Seemed perfectly logical that we needed to know what the customers needed and improve our process to give them exactly that. Define value in the eyes of the customer and find ways of delivering it. After all, my training dictated that was a logical step to start from.

After a number of interviews, surveys, process maps and value stream analysis, I seemed to be making very little headway as I didn’t uncover much that was not already documented on the process and what it should produce. The one question that remained in my mind though was if all the customers needed was what we were already giving them, why then was the process deemed insufficient and incapable of meeting customer needs? Why did we keep on receiving complaints on the quality of our product yet none of the customers seemed to know what was wrong with the quality we were offering? After all we were delivering on time and according to the quality specifications!

As I reflect on all my education, training and experience on organisational turnaround, process improvement, Lean Six Sigma, Business Process Management, Quality Management, Industrial Engineering, I still realise the most consistent and pertinent theme to organisational performance is the need to identify and deliver what the customers need. Lean goes on to suggest that organisations need only do what the customers are willing to pay for; The notion of delivering Customer Value and elimination of waste.

But I wonder, who on earth requested that Apple makes us all an iPad? Who on earth has a need for a curved television set, the latest offering from Samsung? Who on earth knew they needed electricity before the exploits of the great Benjamin Franklin, Michael Faraday, and Thomas Edison?  As I ponder on these seemingly trivial questions, I find equally confusing responses from two of the greatest innovative minds of the century, Henry Ford and Steve Jobs. A statement attributed to Henry Ford quotes him as having said “if I had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. I suppose in his days there were several researchers who were quite seized with understanding the genetic make-up of horses, their strength and food types best suited to the horses’ ability to meet the primary need of the day. Steve jobs, the genius in modern computing is also quoted as having said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them”. Could then these two, well known to have revolutionised not only product design but process improvement, management principles and indeed the innovative capacity to deliver customer needs, have gotten it wrong?

Modern management and production principles do find a way of tracing back to Henry Ford’s principles of management, mass production and product design. Yet the statements above seem to suggest a significant departure from the notion of designing to meet customer needs. Could the approach taken by these great innovators be any different to the concept of designing according to customer needs? Did they just design according to their innovative wits and then go on to convince the customers that the designs were actually what the customers needed? Did they rely on their own instinct to design and package processes and products in a way that people would want to use them? It sure wasn’t through a stroke of luck but through some well thought out and repeatable process that acknowledges the need to understand and deliver what their customers needed. Otherwise their success would have been short lived.

Putting all this in context, I realise that even in the great success stories, customer needs still remain the essence of the design. Google, Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and Instagram are all cases of a customer need met, and resulted in overwhelming organisational performance and meteoric growth. I still just do not conceive though that there was a customer survey, market survey or some protracted collation of customer request and complaint from a call center for analysis. There surely were no focus groups in which potential users were interviewed and they asked for any of these or even in their wildest dreams knew they needed these products.

I do realise though that there is a common thread that remains and is evidently apparent in most organisational turnaround stories that actually led to an improvement or actual turnaround of fortunes. It is the ability, not to ‘gather customer needs’ but to “understand the need”. It is the ability, not to “define the customer” but to “define the need for the customer”.  It is the ability to read through the needs which the customers cannot say for themselves, let alone conceive in their minds. Ford’s Model T is one demonstration of such ability. His mass production principles are surely an ancestor to the modern quality principles, from TQM, Lean, Six Sigma and the recent wave of IT led business process improvement.

Many businesses have joined the wagon of process improvement as a turnaround driver and strategy through custom built Customer Relationship Management (CRM) packages with a view to better understanding their customer needs and “staying closer” to the customers. While customer experience surveys, interviews and Customer Relationship Management (CRM) packages will uncover the mind-set of the customer and provide insights to the customer preferences, they will not, in any measure, provide a yardstick for what the organisation could potentially do to improve their processes, products and ultimately their performance. Surely these will get you closer to the customer and provide a platform thorough which to get their needs but not how to address them. Organisations need more than just a platform, they need an inherent innovative capacity within their genetic makeup to understand these needs and translate them into processes and products that bring around the required results. They need an innovative capability to understand the tacit needs of their customers, the needs which no customer will know of, and the needs that bring a “wow” moment to the customers. These are the kind of needs to which the customers will chuckle and say “I had no idea that was even remotely possible”.

This brings in a specific focus to what Professor Noriaki Kano called the delighters or exciter of customer needs way back in the 1980s. Today’s customers, spoilt for choice, have become less concerned with the basic needs and traditional functionality based offerings, but keep companies on their toes to outwit each other with the delighters. The court battles between Apple and Samsung are still fresh in our minds and I would argue to say were based on nothing other than each organisation’s intellectual property and originality in defining these exciters for their products and customers.

Just in conclusion, I dare you to take a look at how your organisation dedicates resources and effort to building capabilities that foster the innovative capability beyond its core reason for its existence. Innovative capability beyond the basic customer needs for only therein lies the future outlook for your organisation!!!