The Future of Product Innovation Starts with the Past
Everyone is talking about how to innovate for the future. But, is there actually value in looking to our past to better understand how we have even come to think about what innovation really means? An article published in the MIT Sloan Management Review magazine back in 1984 outlines some interesting definitions of product quality (Transcendent, Product-Based, User-Based, Manufacturing-Based and Value-Based)¹. Essentially, each definition has a valid justification for why it drives quality. For example, if we take the example of a common product, such as bed sheets, the product-based definition (which “views quality as precise and measurable”¹) may suggest that the higher the thread count, the higher the quality. Whereas the user-based definition (which focuses on “the degree to which a specific product satisfies the wants of a specific consumer”¹) may suggest that a higher thread count without consideration of other features—texture, color, customization, how they are bundled with other bed accessories, etc.—may affect its perceived quality value. The article emphasizes why the existence of multiple (and sometimes conflicting) definitions are critical to driving the best possible outcome for all stakeholders.
At EMC, one area that all teams agree on is that customer experience matters. However, the way in which we deliver this experience may at times differ. And this is why the existence of an enterprise-wide product quality team is essential—to ensure that we can have healthy debates about how to improve our products (considering the lenses of all parties involved, from marketing to engineering to manufacturing) and ultimately ensure that our products meet both the regulatory standards that we must abide by as well as the subjective interpretations of the customers who buy and use them.
I recently met with Chago (Santiago) Perez-Kolk, Senior Director of Quality on EMC’s Total Customer Experience team, to learn more about EMC’s approach to product quality, how it has evolved and what it will take to ensure the company maintains its leadership position in the next era of technological change, especially with the advent of digital technologies and more sophisticated ways to analyze and act on data.
Here are the three key areas Chago believes companies should focus their efforts to deliver better product quality and drive long-term innovation.
1) REALLY listen to the customer.
The reality is that there is not one single place where a company can go to understand how customers are feeling about its products. At EMC, we rely on a variety of engagement touch points to gather feedback both from the technical end-users who are operating our products every day, as well as those who are responsible for making technology purchase decisions for the entire organization.
- User Groups: Once again at this year’s EMC World event, customers who care about EMC’s software-defined products, such as ViPR, will come together for a full-day session to learn about product roadmaps, EMC’s efforts to improve the experience by acting on feedback they shared through product surveys administered by EMC’s Total Customer Experience team and, most importantly, provide direct input on to what is working well and opportunities to drive future content and features.
- 1-on-1 Customer Deep Dives: EMC led a special initiative beginning in 2013 to correct a series of quality issues with one of our largest Japanese customers. At several points, it seemed as though this customer lost confidence and that put millions of dollars per year in revenue at risk. However, as a result of cross-functional team collaboration, proactive actions & communications with the customer, monthly quality data reviews and customer engagements by EMC’s executive management team, today the relationship with this same customer is almost unrecognizable—the customer has shared public testimony of how much they value the EMC relationship. Additionally, EMC’s Japan country president awarded EMC’s Total Customer Experience team with a special award that honors internal teams for their efforts to delight and serve customers.
2) Push organizational boundaries and begin to tie data pieces together in new ways.
In the past, physical and figurative boundaries could divide teams and vital data. This could inhibit our ability to serve our customers. With EMC’s successful establishment of a company-wide “Data Lake” in 2015, we are on our way to a new level of collaboration, centered on the needs of the customer.
- Holistic Dashboards to Aggregate Diverse Data Sets: The digital era opens the door to many new opportunities, especially when it comes to the speed, accuracy and automation of customer data. We are beginning to explore and test how we can bring together diverse data sets. When we bring together data, such as field quality data, ‘Voice of Customer’ sources and internal quality metrics, we can create a powerful picture of what our customers are telling us about their pain points. And through the latest data visualization tools, we can create user-friendly and actionable dashboards to help us better track the effects of our remediation efforts and close the loop with customers to tell and show them how we have made their product experience better.
3) Fix existing problems (and there will always be problems), but in parallel, plan for the future to prevent them from happening in the first place.
We invest a significant amount of time addressing reactive issues—fixing software bugs, dealing with key performance metrics such as system availability rates, etc. We can’t stop doing this work. However, customers equally expect companies to use data to be more predictive and prescriptive—to look at macro trends across the customer base as well as individual experiences and be able to anticipate quality issues, identify which customers may be more prone to risk, and have the right tools and processes in place to take proactive action.
- Predictive Analytics: In the latter half of 2015, analysis by EMC’s Total Customer Experience team revealed higher outage rates for customers who had complex configurations for one of our storage products. In response, EMC was able to deploy a new code release addressing the known issues and prioritize deployment to this specific customer population. The results of this effort yielded significant reductions in the outage rate for the product family and even more impressive results for those specific complex configurations. The next phase of our predictive product journey is to build an automated early warning system, which can identify when the key performance metrics for EMC products are at risk and take appropriate action to address it.
The future of product innovation cannot happen if we neglect the lessons brought forth by our history. Having an appreciation for how product quality may be perceived by different stakeholders—both within and outside your organization—is an important piece of how you achieve what ultimately matters most—delivering on your promise to customers.
If you have thoughts on this blog or how your organization approaches quality innovation, please leave a comment below.
¹Reference Source: What Does “Product Quality” Really Mean?, MIT Sloan Management Review, David A. Garvin, Fall 1984