I have a long commute, so I have plenty of time to flip through channels on my satellite radio on my way to work each morning. By the time I arrive at the office, I am usually well-aware of all the news that media is covering that day. Last week, when I tuned in to CNN, I discovered that by the end of the year, consumers all over the world will be introduced to a new invention: Galaxy Gear “smartwatch”, which, in essence, is a phone that one can wear on the wrist like a watch. I didn’t quite get whether you can actually use it as a watch—I guess this wasn’t that important. All the CNN team debated was whether it’ll be convenient to have a phone tied to your wrist, how bulky it will be, and whether in a year or so these smartwatches will replace cell phones.
As I listened, I wondered what customer problem this watch/phone would solve. Is this yet another “solution” someone came up with just because it’s a “cool thing to do”?
You can say many great inventions start with the “what if?” question. However, quite a few new products/initiatives fail miserably because they are designed without a clear understanding of what customer problem they are intended to solve.
How about Esperanto? Wasn’t it a great idea to have one language for the whole planet?! If so, why do we still have something like 6,900 languages and dialects and don’t seem to be in a hurry to abandon them? Or McDonald’s Arch Deluxe… an upscale burger for a “sophisticated palate”! Here’s an idea that completely ignored the typical McDonald’s customer’s expectations.
Shifting from consumer goods, what do you think about the debate on how the U.S. should respond to the situation in Syria regarding the use of chemical weapons? In every article and news release on the topic, you find the word “problem”. However, applying the lean definition of a problem as a “gap between the current and the target state,” I am still waiting for someone to do some digging to understand the roots of this terrible problem that resulted in tragic deaths of thousands of people. Then we might all ask what we would like to achieve in this situation in the long-term. Then we could at least hope to find an optimal, sustainable, solution.”
Why do we act this way? Does it mean that we, as human beings, are not natural problem solvers? Are we “programmed” to produce blanket solutions that typically address only symptoms of problems, failing to make an effort to discover what causes them? I don’t think so. All children are naturally curious. They ask “why” until adults run out of answers. However, as we grow up, go through school, and enter the workplace, we learn that for the most part we are not rewarded for spending time to understand the problem at hand. The rewards usually come to those who produce quick solutions. So we all start playing by the rules, suppressing the inquisitive child who still lives in each of us.
To break this pattern, let’s follow a simple rule. Next time you think to say “I’ve got an idea,” pause and ask yourself:
- Who is on the receiving end of your idea? In other words, who is your customer or audience?
- Do you have an in-depth understanding of your customer’s needs? In other words, what is the target condition that will satisfy your customer?
- Do you have an in-depth understanding of the reasons why you are not satisfying your customer now? Have you got a good grasp of the current situation?
- Can you describe the gap between the current state and the target state in clear, concise, measurable terms?
- Do you understand what causes the gap? Did you dig down to the roots of the problem?
If you struggle with any or all of these questions, put your idea on the back burner, pull out an 11x17 sheet of paper, and go to the gemba to find the answers to these questions.
As for me, on my way home from work, I’ll tune my radio to one of the music channels to spare myself from hearing about another brilliant solution to a problem we are yet to fully understand.