Juggling balls: Improving products, watching the world

Barb ClearyIn a 1995 interview, tech guru Steve Jobs posited that empires could crash and burn if the emphasis is on sales rather than on product. “Companies forget what it means to make great products,” he said.1 Instead, they direct resources to selling, rather than improving and innovating.

If empires can crash and burn with this approach, what about organizations? A classic story tells of a company with a great innovation that customers clamor for; but the company, intent on advertising and promoting its product, loses sight of possibilities to improve it, and eventually sales drop in spite of increased advertising budgets, and the company goes bankrupt.

Improvement comes not only with a consistent focus on quality, but also with an eye on what else is happening in the world. This demands consistent contact with customers and competitors, as well as a professional interest in economic forces that may have an impact on businesses.

The inventor of the VegOMatic slicer-and-dicer basked in record sales generated by television advertising and energetic product demonstrations by Ron Popei. The company apparently did not see the food processor coming, nor anticipate that the VegOMatic, like the dinosaurs before it, would disappear from the face of the earth—or at least from most kitchens with their new appliances on the counter, except as “vintage” products on used-goods sites. Purveyors of the new eight-track videos were vanquished by CD makers, and they in turn by digital downloads. The oft-touted manufacturer of classic, high quality buggy whips must have failed to see that transportation was changing, and that the emerging automobiles would not be needing buggy whips, regardless of the whips’ quality.

Making great products, then, involves far more than just manufacturing a product and selling it. Innovators must be looking constantly to the future, not only assuring the continuous improvement of their products, but also looking around enough to see market changes, understand changing customer needs, and foster the ability to respond to forces outside their control.

Addressing two kinds of problems (“problems of today; problems of tomorrow”) W. Edwards Demings’ Fourteen Points emphasizes the importance of “constancy of purpose,” which supports the Chain Reaction: improve quality, reduce costs, improve productivity, capture the market, stay in business, provide jobs and more jobs). 2 Deming insists on the necessity of innovation as part of this constancy of purpose. Innovating involves looking ahead and perceiving potential changes in the market by taking the pulse of customers and those who identify future trends.

It’s a full-time job, to be sure, all this looking around and anticipating what’s to come. But companies who stay in touch with their customers, not by press-one-for-service responses or anonymous polls, but through genuine interactions about their work, find themselves seeing what these customers may identify as “wants,” and transforming these wants into needs by producing high quality products that respond to future needs as well as current wants.

It’s a far more exciting prospect than that of crashing and burning.

1Steve Jobs, quoted by Maureen Dowd, New York Times Review, May 7, 2017, p. 11

2W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986. Pp. 2, 24-5.

This article was published in QualityDiges.com June 13, 2017.