Interdisciplinary Decision Making

All exploration centers around the customer, at least tangentially if not directly. Marketers are well acquainted with customer research, as are industrial designers. But the technology and financial people should connect with the customer as well. We have found that the best companies have integrated teams that engage in customer research together. Different disciplines are trained to interpret infor­mation in a different way, so the integrated and inclusive team is more likely to have a richer understanding of customer needs and desires, and thus a better understanding of priorities as the design process proceeds.

To see the value of integrated teams, consider the opposite case, the extreme case of dominance by single viewpoints. The technology company tends to emphasize the product’s performance, technology capabilities, and manufacturing capabilities. These high-tech products are technically state-of-the-art but often miss the boat on customer satisfaction. These companies excel at quality programs with precise results but miss the accuracy of the market and lack true innovation. Many technology companies provide business-to-business products or services and have seduced themselves with the notion that they do not need to worry about nontechnology product features. However, these companies are vulnerable to competitors that can provide products with hard and soft quality.

Cost-oriented companies emphasize financial and resource allo­cation decisions. The result is often an unexciting but predictable product with slim margins. These products often find themselves considered or competing with commodities. Rumor has it that the canned soups on today’s shelves taste nothing like the same products of yesteryear, that manufacturers have little by little switched to cheaper ingredients. such is the way of cost-oriented companies in mature product categories.

Marketing-oriented firms emphasize price promotions, direct – mail flyers, and highly touted but trivial updates to their product lines. Lemon-scented, anyone? Style-oriented companies emphasize decisions based on aesthetics and trends. These products are exciting to look at and trendy to own but often are impractical for long-term use, or at times even short-term use.

Each discipline has something to bring to the table, essential viewpoints and skills for competitive firms. Each needs to understand the customer so that they can set the macro structure in place, so that trade-offs do not compromise what the product is planned to offer, so that the product is not brought to a market that expects another. Pragmatic innovators solve this dilemma by understanding the cus­tomer through extensive research, setting decision priorities based on that understanding, and maintaining that priority throughout the product development process.

To consider why integrated decisions are needed in practice, con­sider one experience of an automobile firm as it was in the midst of a grille redesign. Grilles are one feature of a vehicle that makes a state­ment about the vehicle’s personality. In people’s minds, this translates to the ability for those who drive the vehicle to make a statement about who they are, or at least who they want to be. Grilles can be large and bold, with strong, thick, vertical lines, as with a Hummer; they can be refined and simple, with horizontal stripes, as with a Cadillac; or they can be subtle and nondescript, as found in many Pontiacs. Hummer, Cadillac, and Pontiac are all brands of GM, but each makes a unique brand and aesthetic statement, partially through various grille designs. The Buick brand, for example, has a unique grille only when it has an oval base with a small bump in the middle on top. Remove that bump, and the grille looks a lot like a Ford oval. The grille is a critical aesthetic feature that defines a vehicle’s brand identity and personality. In the case of Jimmie Spear that began this chapter, one of the biggest factors in the impression of the strength of a pickup truck is the grille. The Avalanche, Titan, and F-150 all suggest a different personality partly because of their grilles.

In the production of vehicles, every year car companies modify vehicle features or aesthetic ornamentation to freshen up the look. About every seven years a major redesign, possibly down to the level of the platform itself, is taken on. The fixed investment for tooling of the vehicles is so expensive that large portions have to be reused each year to pay back those costs, until the major redesign occurs. Even in those major redesign years, there is usually some level of carryover; in other words, some of the parts are reused—“carried over” from the previous design.

We observed the redesign process of a vehicle during the overhaul year at one auto company. The grille became an issue of note. To save costs, the grille was originally slated as a carryover part, one that was used on the previous model vehicle. It looked great there, so why not use it again? Although this company was effective at producing suc­cessful vehicles, there was a lapse in focus on and shared understand­ing of the customer. The finance groups drove the decision-making process for the vehicle’s early direction. The vehicle sold well, but the economy was shifting, so excess spending was carefully watched. The initial program description called for the carryover grille.

over time, however, the design studio argued that the grille needed to be redesigned to support the vehicle’s new emerging image and style. They argued for a significant increase in budget and time to incorporate that change. At the same time, engineering, with a lack of understanding of the integrity of aesthetic features, argued to keep the carryover part to meet the cost and timing targets given to them by finance. This stemmed from a finance group that refused to allo­cate resources to modify that part. The studio eventually won the argument, and the grille was redesigned. If the project management team had better done their homework on the customer upfront, they would have included the voice of the studio before the program description was set. Their priorities would have been different. instead, the program was delayed and the cost target missed because of this design conflict. The company was pragmatic enough to recog­nize its error before it was too late. The production vehicle not only has a unique and strong brand identity, with a bold grille at its fore­front, but the vehicle has been a major success in the marketplace.

To understand why so many companies default to a commodity mentality in decision making, which was really the problem in the grille conflict, consider again the vast number of decisions that have to be made throughout the process. There are many variables in the product being designed. A car has upward of 20,000 parts. Each part has several features that must be identified, modeled, and designed through variables. Many of these variables are interconnected in that deciding the solution to one affects the solution of others; the vari­ables are constrained to influence each other. Physical, aesthetic, legal, and financial constraints limit the realization of the variables. It is understandable that technologists focus on those variables that they can understand and model, and the same goes for finance and even design. It takes effort and insight to work as a team in communicat­ing and negotiating solutions for all of these variables.

The interconnectedness of the variables is often quite tight. A slight change in one variable may profoundly affect how other vari­ables are chosen as the process proceeds. That is the effect of chaos, which is so often squashed too soon. If the team at the auto company decided to carry over the grille, the influence on the car’s aesthetic is much different than if the grille is redesigned. The same is true about the features of the grille as it is redesigned. If it is bold, the vehicle takes a bold stand, and all the other aesthetic details must align with its look and feel.

To not have costs end up as the ultimate arbiter of decisions, it is important to account for the perspectives of the different functional areas that relate to the product, to rely on a research and develop­ment process that integrates the viewpoints of performance engineers, industrial or studio designers, marketers, finance, manu­facturing, technology development, and customer research. All this input is needed because variables are understood by and often controlled by each of these disciplines. These perspectives blend together for decision making to achieve a solution that maximizes the potential for each within the context of the others. Within the struc­tured research and design process that crosses functions, the at-times chaotic countless daily decisions about variables can be effectively managed. To use the drinking-from-a-fire-hose analogy, the cross­functional product design process is the hose that can be pointed in various strategic directions, while the day-to-day decisions are allowed to pour through, uncontrolled at first.

Finally, a certain amount of chaos exists and has to occur in the system. If you allow it to flourish early, if it is channeled well, it becomes a benefit, because it allows greater exploration in the early process. Rather than getting bogged down in analyzing every last decision early, let the customer insight lead you to your next decision point; let the process guide you.

Updated: October 8, 2015 — 7:53 am