Listening to the Customer and Benchmarking the Competition

January 30, 2009 - Tags:

Developing a good concept, with its associated targets, will make or break any vehicle development program. If the concept is not well thought through and does not properly identify the market and how the vehicle will hit the market just right, then even excellent execution of the program will not matter. Efficiency does not equal effectiveness when it comes to developing a new product. Effectiveness starts with what is popularly being called the “fuzzy front end,” when judgment and qualitative data often play a greater role than precise scientific and engineering analysis. In Toyota Way terms, thorough consideration in decision making (Principle 13: Make decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options, implement rapidly) means carefully thinking through the pros and cons of all the possible solutions, based on the facts, before charging ahead down a given path. The Lexus began with a thorough evaluation of the goals of the vehicle led by insightful and experienced engineers. To set his targets, Suzuki carefully considered the competition.

Suzuki started with focus group interviews in the U.S. at a Marriott Hotel on Long Island—a fairly affluent area. This was not a huge survey, but rather just two groups of about a dozen people each. Individuals within groups were assigned to focus on particular vehicles they owned. For example, in Group A four people were Audi 5000 owners, one was a BMW 528e owner, two people owned a Benz 190E, and three people owned a Volvo 740/760. Group B almost directly paralleled this makeup. Suzuki classified what he heard into reasons for purchase, reasons for rejection of other competitive vehicles, and the image they had of different cars. He simplified the results into a number of tables, qualitatively summarizing the results using terms that evoke emotion more than scientific precision .

Shows the reasons for purchase and rejection. There are no surprises here, but it is worth noting how succinctly the table summarizes what many of us have thought and even felt about these various vehicles back in the mid-1980s. So much is captured with so few words. This is a part of Toyota’s visual management; reflected in Principle 7, Use visual control so no problems are hidden. In these summary grids, Suzuki strives to communicate on one piece of paper so the reader sees at a glance the most important points for decision making.

Similarly summarizes a broader set of images associated with European, U.S., and Japanese luxury cars. The first thing the groups focused on was status and prestige—image. Mercedes-Benz was most associated with status and success; Japanese models were not. Clearly a major hurdle for Suzuki was to overcome the rooted stereotype of Japanese cars being practical, efficient, reliable vehicles, but never luxurious. A rank ordering of what was important to buyers of Mercedes in particular was as follows (1=most important):

  1. Status and prestige of image
  2. High quality
  3. Resale value
  4. Performance (e.g., handling, ride, power)
  5. Safety

More than any of the other information gathered, this rank ordering struck an emotional nerve because Suzuki viewed a car essentially as a vehicle of transportation, not “an ornament.” When he listened to people talk about Mercedes-Benz, status and prestige were number one, while performance, the actual basic function of the car, was only number four. Perhaps because of his engineering bias, Suzuki could not accept people choosing Mercedes-Benz’s status appeal over performance. It was a car, after all, not an “ornament.” According to Suzuki:

The car is not something that sits around, it’s something that needs to move around. So I thought. I want to build a car that beats Mercedes-Benz in the most basic function a car has, its driving performance.

Suzuki asked himself, what does it mean to have a high-quality product? What does it mean to have a high-quality luxury vehicle? What can you put into a car that makes people owning it feel like “they’re wealthy, … they have a lot, spiritually speaking?” And, what can you put into a car that, as the years go on, you become more and more attached to that car? So the two characteristics he felt were most important were, in the order of importance, exceptional functional performance and an elegant appearance, not traditionally a Toyota strength. “Mercedes-Benz was kind of a cold vehicle in terms of styling. It’s changed since then, but I decided that the vehicle should have human warmth, beauty, elegance, refinement.” He felt if Toyota could make a car that performed not slightly better than Benz, but considerably better than Benz, with improved styling, then Toyota might be able to change its image and compete.

But having exceptional functional performance and human warmth are somewhat contradictory to one another, because when you build in performance you’re going to lose some of the warmth and human characteristics. It’s not enough to try to make these qualities exist at the same time, because that implies a trade-off. What Suzuki wanted was to fuse these two characteristics, so they become one and the same thing. But this would take some high-level engineering and design decisions. So he developed quantitative targets for the vehicle with that in mind.

Summarizes the targets that Suzuki set for the Lexus as compared with BMW and Mercedes—the main competition. They were based on the assumption that the Lexus could do it all. “So when I showed this to the engineers at Toyota they all laughed at me. They said it was impossible,” explained Suzuki.
So he thought about this some more. He picked apart the different elements.

If you want to make a car that goes very fast, it’s very well-suited to also reducing the aerodynamic resistance. So these two elements are harmonious. When you get up to speeds of 250 km/h your air resistance reaches levels of about 95 percent or over. So the more you’re able to reduce this aerodynamic coefficient, the more speed you’re going to be able to achieve. So these things suit each other well, these two targets. Similarly, improving the fuel economy is very harmonious with the goal of reducing the vehicle mass. However, we didn’t know what to do with the quietness factor because to reduce the quietness to an extreme level, that leads to higher mass. So we needed to start acting on a new operating principle. And the new principle we adopted was not to dampen the noise that exists but to reduce the amount of noise at its source, by making quieter engines.

Suzuki explained that adding structure (mass) to reduce noise was only dealing with the surface problem. The root cause of the noise and vibration that customers experience was the engine. One technique that is part of kaizen (continuous improvement—Principle 14) is to ask why a problem exists five times, going to a deeper level with each “Why?” to get to the root cause of the problem. So, by understanding the root cause of the problem and identifying countermeasures to dampen the noise, Suzuki reasoned he could eliminate the problem of engine noise, without resorting to a surface solution—adding mass. He then developed a list of performance trade-offs, where he wanted to have A yet also B, and C yet also D. For example, he wanted to have very good handling and stability at high speeds, yet at the same time have good ride comfort. These are summarized as a set of “no-compromise” goals. This led to the two guiding goals for the Lexus program.

  1. Cut noise, vibration, and harshness at the source (rather than with after-the-fact measures).
  2. Maintain the “yet” concepts, balancing without compromising on traditional auto design trade-offs.

The first one, at the source, turned out to be largely driven by the accuracy of the parts—the precision with which the parts are manufactured.