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Integrate customer requirements into business design

The Japanese industrial wagon was rolling smoothly in the mid 1960s, a remarkable recovery less than two decades after the country's devastation. Still, the nation's industrial leadership, steeply versed in the teachings of Deming and Juran, were not satisfied. Although Japan's exports were growing, they reckoned, the quality of design had to improve for Japan to move to the front of industrial nations.

Americans have traditionally been very good at developing quality and management theory and the Japanese have traditionally been very good at developing practical tools to apply the theory and get results. Quality of design is no exception.

Yoji Akao, a professor in industrial engineering at Tamagawa University in Tokyo, was among those foreseeing the need to probe deeper into customer interests. His ideas, refined and formalized over several years, became known as quality function deployment (QFD).

It is not a design tool or a problem-solving tool; its purpose is to focus managers and employees on the product/service characteristics that will interest the customer.

"Planning is determining what to make; design is deciding how to make it," says Akao. Quality function deployment begins at the planning stage, which depends on gaining an accurate comprehension of what qualities customers want and translating these customer wishes into product/service specifications.

In its simplest form, QFD is a matrix with the customer's key wants/ needs (warning - wants and needs may not be the same) are listed down the left side of the matrix and the key performance characteristics of the product/service are listed across the top.

Then each performance characteristic is compared with each want/need to determine relationship. Symbols to show the degree of relationship of each characteristic, typically a circle with a dot in the middle is used to depict a strong relationship, a circle for a moderate relationship, a triangle for a weak relationship and a blank where there is no relationship.

The symbols are useful because at a glance you can tell where a customer's want/need is well covered by your product/service. Conversely if the line across from a need/want contains little more than blanks and triangles, then you must address that need with a possible redesign.

Also, if a column under a performance characteristic contains little more than blanks and triangles, then the question is obvious; why are you offering it when the customer does not care?

It is a wonderful tool if kept simple.

A problem often encountered is as people get experienced with using QFD, they tend to explore other ways to use it by adding things such as competitors performance characteristics, relationships between performance characteristics, weighting factors, technical evaluation of performance characteristics, etc.

The danger is the chart becomes too complex and time-consuming to develop that people stop using it. Often overlooked is the value of simplicity.

Akoa's concepts now pervade thousands of businesses and also to applications other than product/service design. An example is to perform a check to see if the organization's strategic plan satisfies the needs/wants of its three major constituencies - customers, employees, and owners.

Again looking for gaps down and across may be very revealing.

QFD is one of many tools that have been developed to help us manage for success.

Louis Schultz, managing director of Process Management LLC, has assisted organizations worldwide with performance improvement. He currently assists area business owners as a SCORE counselor. E-mail him with questions or comments at lou@processman