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QFD: Bridging the Gap between Customer Insights and Product Solutions

By Kristyn Corrigan

Voice of the Customer research helps companies gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. By identifying and img_voices047aprioritizing customer needs, companies can develop products that meet the needs customers value most – those that are important to them, and where current solutions don’t perform all that well. Many companies conduct Voice of the Customer (VOC) only to find that their company struggles to use the results.  Departments, such as engineering or finance, view research as interesting but “not specific enough” to tell them what to do to change the product. It’s too abstract. In contrast, market research views Voice of the Customer output as precisely what they were looking for and say that the other departments “don’t get it.”

The truth is that both sides are right. The needs that emerge from good Voice of the Customer are not exactly what engineers need, but that level of specificity is not the goal of Voice of the Customer. What they need is a technique to bridge the gap between needs and product solutions. What they need is QFD. This technique translates Voice of the Customer findings into the product specifications that engineers and others involved in developing new products can use.

WHAT IS QFD?

QFD is derived from an obscure phrase in Japanese, which is loosely translated as Quality Function Deployment. The name actually does little to describe the process. QFD involves a group exercise to fill in a set of tables known as the House of Quality. The technique was first developed by the Japanese at Kobe Shipyard in the early 1970s. It then made its way through the Japanese engineering community, finding its way to Toyota in the early 1980s. From there it spread to the United States, where QFD found its most famous use in the mid-1980s by Ford, with the Taurus. QFD was first published in a major management journal in the U.S. in the Harvard Business Review (May-June, 1988) by MIT professor John Hauser, and Don Clausing. Since then, QFD has been used everywhere – not just for new product development, but also for the design of services, process improvement, Six Sigma and even improving employee satisfaction.

TRANSLATING CUSTOMER NEEDS INTO DESIGN SPECIFICATIONS

Voice of the Customer research gives us a complete set of customer needs, in the customer’s own words, organized and prioritized by customers. As useful as these needs are, however, they are often not technically specific enough for the engineers who must design the new product. Suppose, for example, that customers want a roomier back seat in a car. There are many ways to accomplish this. The seat could be made wider, longer, taller, lower, or the body around it could be changed to provide more room. This is where QFD comes in by helping the new product development team find the different physical product specifications that measure how a need is met, or the design requirements. It also prioritizes these requirements by finding which ones help satisfy the most customer needs. QFD results can be fed into brainstorming sessions where designers figure out imaginative new solutions that enable the company to build a product that meets the desired specifications. The key point to remember is that QFD provides an important link between customer needs and identifying what sort of product will best meet those needs, described in a way that design engineers find useful.

HOW DOES THE QFD PROCESS WORK?

After establishing a cross-functional team of 8-10 people who will bring varying perspective to the exercise, the first step for the group is to review the list of customer needs. These are typically derived from VOC research and reviewed in detail so that everyone has a common understanding of their meaning and where they came from. Typically we include 15-20 customer needs in a QFD exercise. Any less wouldn’t have the proper amount of detail and many more would be too overwhelming of a task for the team to complete.

Next, the team brainstorms a list of technical requirements, or performance measures. This is an iterative, group exercise that usually takes a full day to complete. Here, the cross functional team is useful because creativity is essential. Looking at the customer needs from different lenses is crucial. Typically we aim to include 40-60 technical requirements.

From here, team members identify initial correlations between needs and technical requirements. This is typically first done individually. Results are merged electronically and then debated as a group. Those with sufficient group agreement are left standing, while the rest are debated to get consensus. Input and discussion from the team are critical at this stage of the process. Understanding how each technical specification potentially correlates with customer needs is critical.

Next, the technical priorities are calculated. The result is a prioritized list for technical requirements to develop. Remember, the requirements that satisfy the most important customer needs will be ranked highest in priority, thus ensuring the product we build will ultimately appeal to customers.

Last, we discuss development strategy going forward. We talk about elements such as feasibility, risk, cost and time considerations as well.

PRIORITIZING DEVELOPMENT ACTIVITIES

QFD is a systematic process that allows the team to prioritize img_voices047b their development activities in an analytical way that puts the customer first. It gives us a set of performance measures, prioritized based on how well improvements in each satisfy customer needs. The process takes advantage of the diversity in a cross-functional team in an orderly, truly participative way. It helps foster early buy-in and gives the team a common language with which to communicate about translating needs into product specifications. In addition, QFD is a robust process with an ‘‘audit trail’’ that reminds people, both new and old to the project, as to why certain decisions were made in the past. This helps resolve potential disagreements by referring to existing evidence about what customers want, not on internal corporate politics or power. Having completed a QFD, your design team will have the foundation for a tactical plan to guide its development efforts onto actionable items such as concept development, testing and prototyping. Importantly, you’ll have bridged the gap between customer insight and product solutions.

Customer Insights Product Design Specs QFD Voice of the Customer

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