Sunday, March 06, 2016

Design by consensus

Designing new products generally doesn't work when the task is handed to a committee and is even more likely to  result in failure when that committee comprises members from several different countries.

It has been claimed that the camel is a horse designed by a committee and that is what you get when trying to meet the key demands of all parties. In the early years of operating in the then Common Market nothing much really changed except as a product manager I  was sent off to Europe on some sort of fact finding mission. My first trip was to Sweden, not then even a member of the EEC - the European Economic Community - but one of our best markets for floodlighting products  outside the UK. I  learned little of interest relevant to designing products for that particular market, but more about the people who had wanted to give input to the next phase of product development. I  took away a simple message that those who were making good progress in the market and shouted loudest got listened to. Basically we tended to modify design to suit products that were already selling well rather than attempt to design a pan European product that could be sold anywhere without modification. The real challenge was to develop products that were better than the competitors and price competitive.

My next company operated in more of a niche market and the MD - one of several who occupied the hot seat during my 10 years there - became bored with all the moans he got about our product not suiting the market in every country he visited and so insisted on each sending a representative to design meetings. We would have been lucky to come up with a camel, yet only the horse.  Bringing them all to London and getting them in the same room was challenge enough and keeping them in the room even tougher. Each had some favourite element that must be included in the final product. If we had actually incorporated all of them, the product would look ridiculous in any country and be burdened with a high cost overhead. Design is not really a committee thing, less so if the individual members have some private agenda to get some feature or the other in. And lets face it, even if they were all from the same country most people have little idea anyway, until that is you have made a product. Then they will soon tell you what is wrong with it. But ask them to explain upfront and it is a different story.

We had manufacturing in several locations, but mainly in Italy, Scotland and the USA. A visit into the factory in Italy was itself instructive. Stop and examine a product making its way through assembly would soon draw a crowd of excited Italians who all seemed to be frustrated designers, oblivious to the work piling up at the work station they had abandoned to join the argument. Interestingly the biggest market for their products was the USA. I think it fair to say the enthusiasm for the design of products and passion for beautiful engineering was not a thing that troubled  assembly line workers in the USA or Scotland to anything like the same extent. Indeed  in some English factories they had to ask permission to visit the toilet!

It seemed to me that a good product, at the right price was what everyone actually wanted to buy and getting the designers to understand the end user needs and often the installers' preferences was more helpful than assembling an international committee. Football floodlights were an interesting example. These were often at the top of a tower of uncertain vintage and usually ex MOD  from the end of WW2. Climbing some 200 feet up a lattice construction tower was bad enough but then fiddling around with an Allen key to tighten up the screw was not something designers thought about until I  took them to a major football stadium and made them climb up and see for themselves. In Sweden by the way they often had to do this in sub zero temperatures!

All said, British membership of the EU as the EEC  became, had little real impact on product design or acceptance in other countries. The test standards did, but then it is international standards that are more relevant than now. While all this focus on European issues was going on, the Japanese and later the Chinese were making great inroads into our markets without needing to be members of the EU.  The larger companies in the UK did have some input to British Standards and sometimes to European standards as well, smaller companies did not have that advantage. So we are left with tariff barriers and cost issues. Again, experience suggested that compliance with standards was not always mandatory. It is the old marketing Product, Price, Place and Promotion which had to be sorted.

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