The Power of Customer Tours

In the early 1980s, Eugene Goodson was the head of Johnson Controls’ automotive seating group, when a Japanese competitor requested a plant tour. The Japanese visitors spent less than one hour in the plant and took no notes. Harmless, right? Years later Goodson and his team were able to read the tour report and were shocked at what the Japanese team had uncovered, including a detailed technology description and a highly accurate estimate of their cost of sales. For more on this, check out the Harvard Business Review article “Read a Plant—Fast.”

“Search now, solve later” is our motto for Discovery interviews and tours.

Of course, you’ll need to develop new skills for this, which, frankly, are rare. There’s little guidance on the subject. Only two Harvard Business Review articles have ever addressed this. Ethnographic research is an interesting observation methodology, but is heavily weighted toward consumer behavior, not B2B. Finally, a helpful framework comes from “muda” and the seven wastes of lean processes—developed by Toyota chief engineer Taiichi Ohno—but even this falls short of what is possible.When you take a customer tour, you’re trying to help the customer in two ways. First, you want to gain context for your voice-of-the-customer interview…which ideally will take place right after the tour. You’ll be able to ask much better probing questions to understand their needs once you have seen their process first-hand. Second, you should look for potential areas of improvement that will benefit the customer. We don’t recommend discussing these with the customer yet. “Search now, solve later is our motto for Discovery interviews and tours. Still, there’s a good chance your “fresh eyes” will be able to spot work-arounds (temporary, sub-optimal) fixes) and other areas you could help them improve later.

A New Methodology from AIM: AMUSE

Problem: There was little active thinking after folks had figured out how to adjust their hardhats.

For years we struggled with ways to help our clients improve their customer tours. We’d seen too many tours where there was little active thinking after folks had figured out how to adjust their hardhats. Then, three years ago we developed a new tour methodology called AMUSE, which we describe here publicly for the first time. Before you can apply AMUSE, you must break your customer’s operation into discrete activities.

All customer processes are made up of a series of activities. This is true of a factory process like paint-making, fieldwork like house-framing, or a service like computer help-desk support. Ask your customer tour guide to help you draw a sketch of their operation before the tour. This helps you identify these activities, as well as a) their purpose, b) their sequence, and c) key inputs. Then apply AMUSE methodology to each activity in the process, striving for improved customer outcomes. Remember, you might be only thinking about these outcomes during the tour:

Accelerate Activity: How could we make this activity go faster, thereby reducing labor costs and increasing capacity?

Minimize Input: How could we reduce the costs of material, capital, and energy applied to this activity?

Upgrade Output: How could we improve the output from this activity, e.g., reducing defects or improving ultimate customer benefits?

Simplify Transition: How could we streamline the transition between two activities, thus reducing inventory and lead times?

Eliminate Activity: How could we totally eliminate an activity—perhaps by combining two or more activities—to reduce overall costs?

If you’re using Blueprinting Discovery interview methodology, your team probably consists of a Moderator, Note-taker, and Observer. To make the tour more manageable, break the workload down. The Moderator might focus on “accelerate” for each activity, the Note-taker on “minimize” and “upgrade,” and the Observer on “simplify” and “eliminate.”

An Example of AMUSE

Imagine you make nail guns and you’re observing their use on a house construction site… and the activity you’re observing at the moment is overhead nailing. How might you apply AMUSE methodology to help the customer (later) with this activity?

  • Accelerate Activity: What if you lowered the weight of the gun? I’ll bet the framer would be going faster by the end of a long day.
  • Minimize Input: Remember, the input could be material, energy, or capital costs. You might want to see if a higher-powered gun would let the worker use cheaper studs full of tough knot holes.
  • Upgrade Output: One way to upgrade output would be to lower defects—nails that don’t fully embed—perhaps by having the gun sense resistance and adjust for it.
  • Simplify Transition: Maybe the framer’s next activity is to set the gun down on the floor. If you designed a hanger on the gun, this could cut down on a lot of bending.
  • Eliminate Activity: Most studs have 14.5 inches between them. If the framer’s preceding activity was using a tape measure, you might eliminate it by building a 14.5 inch guide into the nail gun.

Are these all great solutions? Probably not. But what if your interview teams were highly skilled in these observational methods? Would they ask better probing questions during interviews? Would they uncover new ways to help customers? Would this give your company a competitive advantage?

What If I Can’t Get a Tour?

Getting customers to agree to a tour is not a problem in some industries, and a major issue in others… especially where trade secrets are critical, like circuit board fabrication. If this is your situation, don’t be discouraged. Here are some approaches to try…

1. Request a partial tour. Perhaps some areas are off-limits, but others would be acceptable.

2. Ask for a virtual tour. Request a hand-drawn sketch like the one used before a physical tour. Let the customer talk you through the process step by step as you ask questions… as though you were on a real tour.

3. Request a future tour after your interview. Customers are often more willing when they see how interested you are in them during a Discovery interview.

4. Offer to sign an NDA. You might sign a non-disclosure agreement with one or more customers. If you do, be careful to safeguard specific information you’ve learned during the tour.

5. Don’t give up. Many suppliers do, assuming they’ll never get a tour. As with some of our clients, you could become the first supplier ever allowed on a tour.

To the last point, one of our clients—who made a raw material for diapers—was so interested in their customer’s product that the entire team wore adult incontinence products for a day. (They later told me they made this team decision in a Shanghai bar at 3:00 a.m.) This point came out during the interview, and the customer was so impressed with their dedication that they granted the supplier a tour. So if you’re having trouble getting an interview… now you know what you need to do!

Learning More…

If you’d like to learn more about this subject, contact us. We have one entire e-learning module (out of 31 in the Blueprinting series) devoted to this subject. If you work for an interested B2B supplier, we’ll be happy to provide you with complimentary access to this.

If you are an existing AIM client, you already have access to the job aid AMUSE Customer Tour Checklist, with over 75 observational topics for suppliers of materials, components, equipment, and services. To get a fresh copy, just contact us to let us know you’d like one. Best wishes on those customer tours!

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