Coupling & Crosstalk: Milking It!

Coupling & Crosstalk is my column in the MEPTEC Report. This column appears in the Fall 2018 edition on pages 8-9.

Electronic coupling is the transfer of energy from one circuit or medium to another. Sometimes it is intentional and sometimes not (crosstalk). I hope that this column, by mixing technology and general observations, is thought provoking and “couples” with your thinking. Most of the time I will stick to technology but occasional crosstalk diversions may deliver a message closer to home.

Milking It!

I observed recently two different companies “milking” their businesses for good and for ill. With the proper perspective, consumers can see how well an organization manages and cares for their products – tangible goods and services. Not just in the headline news which may be indicative outliers (airline mistreatment of passengers, anyone?) but in everyday interactions and purchases.

What does milking a business – be it cows or dishwashers – have to do with high technology? Everything when it can be instructive! Looking at “consumer” product management successes and failures, it is important to remember that “industrial” customers are consumers too. They consume products on a commercial basis and in personal life. Their experiences and expectations crossover between the consumer and the commercial domains. You would not accept shoddy merchandise at home, so why accept it at work? And If you receive white-glove treatment from vendors at no extra cost in the office, you will seek the same at home. As the bar is raised, any product that falls short will be a disappointment.

Whey to go! Who would have thought a dairy plant would be sexy let alone a destination? Count my family among the million plus annual visitors to the Tillamook Creamery. We once again made the journey enjoying Oregon’s coastal scenery with the Tillamook factory being the “anchor” of the day. Am I nuts? Not only stopping once when my children were eight years old but again with them in high school? Great scenery, fun factory tour, great cheese, and delicious ice cream. Tempura battered cheese curds, anyone? What’s not to like? Unless you are lactose intolerant…

Two things really stood out at Tillamook on this recent visit. The first, immediately upon arriving, was their brand-new visitors’ center followed by the second which was their production line. Their prior visitor setup, while functional and educational, was vintage 1970s. The newly expanded visitors’ center is sleek and modern with museum-quality interactive displays, tasting area, and expanded gift store (no surprise). And the original ice cream stand has been transformed into a comprehensive food court.

Beyond the building architecture itself, what impressed was how well everything – the building and the content – was executed as a marketing exercise. Everything from the pictures on the walls, the videos, the food served, to the gift store items were selected and coordinated to reinforce their brand identity and message. Yes, they emphasize their multi-generational roots and continued ownership by the farmers’ families. (Tillamook is a cooperative.) What was truly impressive was how well this message was executed in contrast to the folksy “haphazard” prior version. Think an Apple store crossed with a Walt Disney theme park. Or perhaps a BMW showroom for cheese. The level of sophistication is orders of magnitude ahead of other factory tours and visitor centers we have seen. They clearly take great pride in their products and are not following the herd!

The second remarkable item was the stark contrast of the actual production equipment to the modern visitor center. They are indeed proud that some of their production equipment (cheese curdling vats in particular) date back to when the plant was built in the 1940s. The entire facility had been designed for continuous operation and to allow cleaning and servicing of equipment “in place”.

And though the basic recipe for making cheese has not changed over time, they have continuously improved their processes, updating their production line over the years with automation, new production equipment, and technology. The fact that they have been able to do this in the original building while utilizing sections of their original equipment, demonstrates that they understood the fundamentals of their processes and business from the start.

The takeaway from visiting Tillamook? Great cheese and ice cream! But we knew that already… The experience creates a very positive impression about the brand (score one for Marketing!) and their operations. They demonstrate their pride in their business by continuously investing in it. Tillamook has been busy milking cows, not the business!

What is in a name? Mature product organizations have a stage-gate product development process that includes robust design for x (DFx) criteria reviewed at each checkpoint. The “x” stands for a wide range of functional and usage areas including Manufacturing, Assembly, Service, Quality, Reliability, Usability, etc. At each checkpoint the product is reviewed against best practices (from prior products and industry knowledge) and corporate goals to insure robustness of the design in each area.

Design for manufacturing (DFM), for example, examines all aspects of the design to make the product as simple and economical to manufacture as possible. A typical DFM checklist item is the number and types of fasteners. Why have five different types screws – some Phillips and some hex head drive – when these all can be replaced with two types of Torx screws?

Usability and Installation are key areas that should be in any DFx review process. So, it was very surprising to run into multiple issues with the recent installation of a high-end General Electric (GE) dishwasher during our kitchen remodel. GE has a very engineering-centric product development culture with a strong reputation for white goods (home appliances). Expectations were high from the outset and there was noticeable attention to details in many areas of the design.

The installation went smoothly until the very end when the unit was to be secured to the cabinets with trim. The specifications for this unit say “24 inch minimum” width which matches the standard United States dishwasher cabinet opening of 24” [610 mm]. With the smallest required finish trim installed, the unit is 24.5” [622 mm] wide. Needless to say this caused problems as our cabinets are 24” wide with typical engineering precision.

The next step was no better. The unit is supposed to be anchored on each side using openings in the interior of the dishwasher. The access to these openings are blocked by the top rack of the dishwasher so it was impossible to see the screws let alone reach them with a tool. Simple solution – remove the top rack, right? Nope. In this model, unlike others, the rack is only removable by a “factory technician”. After much cursing, the engineers of the household persevered in removing the top rack in order to fasten the unit to the cabinets. And successfully reinstalled the rack to finish the installation.

There is absolutely no way this dishwasher, as configured, passed a reasonable DFx check for installation. Perhaps the designers never bothered to try installing this configuration into a standard 24” wide opening? If so, their product managers failed by either not identifying the actual use case or insisting an actual check be done. Or perhaps a change was made to the product configuration without bothering to check again…

Of course there is more to this story. We purchased our GE appliances based on previous experience, brand reputation, and high rankings in Consumer Reports. Unbeknownst to us the entire GE white goods business was purchased by Haier in early 2016. Clearly GE lost interest in the business over the years and was “milking it” prior to the sale. Once their pride of ownership was lost, quality and innovation suffered likely increasing the imperative to sell. Not only did Haier buy the business they purchased the name too! I would argue that both companies should be concerned about product quality – Haier as the manufacturer and seller and GE because their name is still on it.

In the end it is all about taking pride in a business and properly setting customer expectations to ensure future success. Anything less leads to customer dissatisfaction. Exceeding expectations separates the winners from the losers!

As always, I look forward to hearing your comments directly. Please contact me to discuss your thoughts or if I can be of any assistance.