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Michael Balle

Michael Ballé: Learning to make hit products

By Michael Balle, co-author of The Gold Mine and The Lean Manager - Last updated: Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - Save & Share - Leave a comment

This is a very interesting question: how can lean help boost sales? There are two ways of looking at this: one, applying lean thinking to the sales function, or two, increasing sales with lean. As I don’t much about selling, I’ll tackle the latter – how can lean boost sales without touching the sales function? If we’re not focusing on selling, the product had better sell itself!

There are four very large challenges here:

  1. How can we grasp customer preferences to design a product they’ll like (and buy)?
  2. How can we design the product to deliver these functional performances as well as genera hassle-free robustness?
  3. How can we make sure production builds the product as designed without inserting unnecessary faults in the manufacturing process (which also involves suppliers)?
  4. Finally, how can we react to adverse publicity by spotting problems in the market and fixing them before they affect product reputation?

As far as I can tell, there are specific lean answers to each of these questions – but I’m going a bit on a limb here as I agree with the original question and these topics have definitely not been researched enough in the lean movement.

To start with, we need to accept fundamentally that companies create products or services for people by people – no “perfect” design process will ever deliver the killer app that will take the market. You need a human designer to do this – no matter how fallible and/or exasperating humans can be. The lean answer to this conundrum is the Chief Engineer. One physical person is in charge of digesting all the customer information out there, formulating the customer preferences in terms of technical parameters. Clearly, in order to do so successfully, the CE needs insights from many specialized group, from marketing to customer relations people in charge of gathering all data about complaints (and their reasons).

In order to be as robust as possible, the design process itself needs to be as standard driven as can be – which essentially means 1) conducting innovation projects offline until they’re validated and on the shelf ready to be included in new products and 2) solving the tricky problems ahead of product actual design. In the design phases, the lean emphasis is to stick as close to what we know as possible and outline clearly areas of “new” (ie with little back history) versus “known”. This, it turns out is very counterintuitive as many engineers I know are constantly trying to prove their bit of software or kit can work in a great variety of situations and get a kick out of pushing enveloppes. Hmm.

When it gets to production, the lean approach of Jidoka at the gemba is well known, albeit little practiced with enough rigor:

It’s not that hard, but it requires focusing on the employee’s perspective, not managements, which is a radical 180° turn for many companies.

Fourthly, making sure of product quality also requires some sort of fast response team that can spot issues on the market and knows how to respond, either by “commando” fixes, or by larger programs such as recalls. One difficulty there is not let tactics become policy, and not be too quick to draw conclusions from solving local quality problems. Stuff happens, and that doesn’t mean the system is broken – in some cases, the heavier the procedural system, the greater the risk of “normal accidents”.

As Pascal says: Design, Make, Sell – I haven’t gone into the sell bit here because I really believe that if the product is well design and well made, it can be sold by any (ie non-lean) sales force. We know a lot about how to Make, but I feel we still have lots to learn about Design before we go into Sales!

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