Editorial: Choices

May 1, 2003
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There is a new television commercial, and, to be frank, I'm not even certain what product is being marketed. It was the concept that I noticed. In the commercial, a customer is deciding what color car he wants. First he chooses red, then no, he wants it black. Finally, he decides on red.

The patient sales representative stands with a handheld computer and punches in the order and then revises it. On a split screen, a robotic painting operation starts, stops, and once again begins painting the car.

What struck me are the choices that that consumer now has. No, that isn't quite right. What is interesting is his expectation of choices and immediate gratification. That concept has never been truer. Whether that consumer is Jack or Jane Doe or the Ford Motor Co., customers want choices, choices and more choices. And, oh, by the way, they also want short lead times and lower costs.

We may not be to the point where cars are built to order, but the time is coming when custom products, or at least semi-custom products, are a must. This is a situation for which quality professionals must be prepared.

In a recent speech, Ford Vice President Anne Stevens says that her company is actively moving to be flexible enough to make "on the dime" changes. Otherwise, she fears, the car company may be eclipsed by more nimble competitors. Henry Ford's famous quotation that the customer can have any color car he wants as long as it was black opened the door to competitors offering more choices to a growing middle class. This opening also gave rise to General Motors.

Stevens says that the Internet has created a consumer that wants things NOW. That won't change as time goes by. Recently, I stood in queue at a hotel when I heard a tired and frustrated three- or four-year-old girl sitting on the floor and screaming because she wanted to play on her computer. She didn't want to wait until they got to their room; she wanted it now. I have a feeling that in a couple decades that same girl won't wait for a company to deliver a product custom designed to her wants. She will find a company that will give it to her immediately.

Of course, many industries face this. The furniture industry is a leader in customizing or semi-customizing their products by giving the consumers design choices. These bells and whistles add value, but they also add time and the industry is struggling with lead times that can range up to two months.

As customer expectations grow, so too will the pressure on a company to move product out the door faster and faster. Product quality may suffer. There may be times when decisions must be made quickly. Times when the quality professional will be pressured to cut corners and approve product that is "close enough" to spec. While it is easy for me to say, it is at those times that the quality assurance person, design engineer or shop-floor tester must stand up and be an advocate for their customer and reject that part.

At that time they must be the one to demand the right part, right now.

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