Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sanity is the Right Mission Statement

Executive Summary:
When we endeavor to produce a new product, a service, or a business solution, our very definition of that solution drives all other decisions.  Therefore, our mission statement or solution vision reflects the most important decision in the solution development process.  Make sure that you have a solid system for declaring the right mission and avoid investing resources developing the wrong thing.

The Rest of the Story:
One of my closest friends works with an engineer that tells a sad, but not uncommon story.  Before working with my friend, he worked at NASA, on the space program.

He tells of a two-year long project to develop a treadmill for the space station.  I’ll give you another paragraph to ponder the meaning of such a mission.

When we engage in the development of new products or other solutions, naturally we seek to develop a solution to solve our customers’ problems.  Many times we even go so far as to ask our customers what they want from us.  Unfortunately, what our customers say they want isn’t always what will make them happy.

When I first heard the story of developing a treadmill for the space station, before even hearing the adventures that the project entailed, I immediately, intuitively, smelled disaster at the disclosure of the project’s mission statement.

Whether you are an Engineering, Marketing, or Sales professional, or just a common sense person, I’d be willing to bet that you also smell a “booby trap” project.  The first and most obvious challenge is that it is difficult to run on a treadmill where there is no gravity.

Of course, other challenges spring to mind as well.  Can the space station handle the repeated impact and vibration that a treadmill induces, or is a complex dampening system necessary?  What about power?  Would the electric motors powerful enough to drive the tread belt tax the space station’s power budget?

Obviously, the purpose for the treadmill is to facilitate exercise, especially aerobic exercise, for astronauts spending weeks or months on the station.  I suppose that a treadmill meets the requirements of being a compact solution.  We can get versions for our homes that fit under the bed or fold up against the wall.  It’s also universal to every body shape and fitness level.  But surely there must be a more practical exercise solution for a zero gravity, limited power, weight-constrained environment.

The rest of the story goes as we might expect.  In spite of objections to the direction, the team was told to develop the treadmill because that is what the contract dictated.  After two years of development, the team had a design, which was not put into production because a more practical solution had emerged in the mean time.  Yes, our tax dollars probably paid for that two-year project.

I have worked in the engineering services long enough to appreciate the value of a “customer is always right” approach.  But when the customer requests a specific solution that isn’t well thought out or practical, even if you build what they asked for, they won’t be happy.

The problem in the space treadmill example is precisely that.  The mission defined a specific solution.  Maybe it was the first idea that came to mind.  Certainly it was an idea that didn’t consider the environmental challenge.  Wherever it came from, it was a poor solution for the true problem.  Our customers do this to us all the time.  Sometimes we do it to ourselves.

New products and solutions often turn out best when the mission is, “solve the following problem,” not, “build me this.”  Unfortunately, it’s easy to fall into the trap.  When we talk to customers and ask them to tell us what would make them happy, they answer with the problem in mind.  Meanwhile, we interpret their desires with the product in mind, and we miss the fundamental problem.

Take the example of the luggage design urban legend.  According to the legend, two competing luggage companies engaged traveler customers at approximately the same time and asked similar voice-of-the-customer questions.  They both arrived at the same customer complaint and desire.  “My luggage is too heavy.  It hurts to carry it.  Can you please make it lighter?”

One company fell into the trap.  They heard, “Make your next luggage product lighter.”  What the customers probably really meant was, “make my burden easier to carry.”

As a result, the first company spent time and resources exploring lightweight materials and minimalist designs and produced a product that was incrementally lighter than the competition’s.  Unfortunately, those few ounces they saved became unnoticeable compared to the weight of the stuff a traveler puts into the luggage. The problem wasn’t solved.

The second company, instead, dug deeper into the problem and returned to work with a mission statement that was totally different.  Instead of a mission that stated, “Develop a lighter luggage product,” they had a mission more along the lines of, “Make it easier for a traveler to carry or transport his/her luggage.”

The second company eliminated the customer’s complaint by putting a handle and some wheels on the luggage.  Voila!  The rollerboard-style luggage we all travel with today was born, or so goes the legend.  By the way, the rollerboard is heavier than the carry-type luggage.

Have you ever been told to develop a solution that didn’t make sense, or wasn’t practical?  Have you ever done so without knowing it at the time?  I have.  It happens easily, and frequently because the mission statement isn’t thought through.

Prevent the two-year long space treadmill and lighter luggage projects by installing a very simple check-and-balance system that challenges every new product or new solution definition.  I have converged on three questions that prevent most disasters.
  1. Is this a problem statement or a solution statement?  (If you can’t drive a behavior of focusing on problems instead of solutions right away, substitute this question:  Does this idea solve the customer’s problem?)
  2. How do we know this is the right problem(solution)?
  3. Will it be easy for a competitor to follow with a “leap-frog” solution?

A leap-frog solution is one that offers incrementally better performance, or the same performance for lower cost, than your own solution and, thus, steals the market.  Of course you can add questions or modify the wording to suit your own organization.

The behavior to drive is that of asking and answering a very few, quick questions to ensure that your decision about what to develop is made wisely.  I strongly suggest involving a selection of cross-functional minds in the question and answer activity.

I know that sometimes our Marketing folks don’t like to include engineers in product definition discussions because the challenges to the practicality of the ideas become wearisome and often sabotage a group’s optimism.  However, many times the engineers can insert a level of pragmatism or effectively simplify an idea.  Likewise, Sales personnel often have a strong sense of what customers say and can provide an excellent reality check.

In my experience, the strongest tool for driving focus on the real problem instead of the first inspirational solution idea is a well-constructed problem statement.  With a little practice, it becomes an almost automatic activity.

A good problem statement includes the following pieces of information, no more, no less.
  • What the problem is
  • How you know
  • When or under what conditions the problem occurs

A good problem statement must not contain the following information, though the natural tendency is to do so.
  • Opinions
  • Solutions

The point of the problem statement is to make sure that everyone understands the problem the same way and remains focused on the true problem, not someone’s idea of a solution to the problem.  Focus on the problem itself allows creative brainstorming and innovation processes to produce a selection of possible solutions and the all-important decision of which one will be the vision for the solution development effort.

I appreciate that challenging your product development or other solution directives in a committee will take more time and involve more discussion than we typically care to entertain in our business decisions.  About this I want to make two points.

First, a clear and well-crafted problem statement keeps the discussion to a minimum.  It quickly gets everyone to the same understanding about the opportunity of concern.

Second, how long does your business take to develop a new product typically?  How many resources are involved?  Isn’t it worth a few hours to be sure that the investment in your next product will drive a successful offering?  Isn’t an hour-long meeting to prevent spending months or years developing the wrong solution worth the time?

Businesses that do this regularly become practiced at it and the discussion only takes a few minutes.  A 1-hour review of proposals for the product pipeline can permit the above question-and-answer activity for several projects.

The mission statement is an outcome of the most important decision you will make in product, service, or solution development.  Don’t fall into the trap of automatically doing what a customer asks when a better, more practical solution can be produced.

Protect yourself from “booby trap” projects by asking a few simple questions to ensure that you are solving the real problem and that your solution will succeed.  Use tools like problem statements to facilitate your decisions.  You will issue your mission statements wisely and with greater confidence, and your failure rate will decline.

Stay wise, friends.

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