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Being More Responsive to Customer Needs

Being More Responsive to Customer Needs

A Means to Improve Customer Satisfaction and Operational Efficiency

Sometimes you gain a new perspective about an issue when you least expect it. For me, it occurred at a usual Friday afternoon beer bust back in 1981 during a brief encounter with Jerry–the VP of Field Engineering.
You see, this particular beer bust was special–we celebrated achieving $100 million in new revenue shipments during a single fiscal quarter. I caught Jerry in a moment of solitude leaning against the wall sipping his beer as he stared off into the distance.

I approached him and said “Well, Jerry, $100 million is quite an accomplishment don’t you think?” He quickly retorted, “These guys think it’s a really big [expletive deleted] deal. They forget that each day I wake up I have to support an installed base worth $1.1 billion shipped over a period of five years spread out all over the world.”

Jerry created a paradigm shift for me. We don’t see the field organization so it is easy to forget the role they play in the success of the company.

For those of us at headquarters, we tend to focus our business from Wall Street’s perspective– the financial results we produce. Because we report these results on a quarterly basis, we tend to think of our business challenges in this same context. We lose perspective as to the cumulative value of revenue shipments and the impact this has on customer support and, more importantly, customer satisfaction.

Most manufacturers have a process to control the configuration of their parts and sub-assemblies, but have no process to control the configuration of their products. As manufacturers seek new international markets, establish new OEM relationships, and/or try to contain escalating service and support costs, having a system for identifying the configuration and configuration level of products gives you a competitive advantage.

The Benefits of a Product Configuration Control System

A Product Configuration Control System gives all departments the ability to have a common understanding about the design evolution of a product. It also provides a mechanism to understand the status of each customer-owned product with respect to that evolution. The system provides the means to:

• Extend Engineering’s base of knowledge and understanding about a product to personnel in Manufacturing and Customer Service. This can free Engineering to do the creative work they enjoy most.

• Means to audit and manage the implementation of product changes in Manufacturing. This is a missing component in many quality programs.

• Means to understand the configuration and configuration level of a product at the customer site. This can help with pre-site planning for upgrade installations and insure compatibility with other products and features.

• Identify and anticipate problems before they become an issue for the customer.

Recurring Operating Challenges That Ultimately Affect Customer Satisfaction

– The types of problems that Jerry’s people commonly encounter occur during “off-hours” when the headquarters folks are unavailable to answer difficult questions. Field personnel are often in the throes of battle with a system installation or upgrade while those of us at headquarters have our feet propped up on the coffee table watching the Super Bowl, Murphy Brown or the evening news. Field personnel work at different times and in different time zones than those of us at headquarters–they work when the customers allow them to.

– A problem encountered during installation or upgrade of a system usually requires pre-scheduled customer downtime. A technical issue or problem can cause an installation to be aborted or cause delays in bringing a system back on-line. Such delays do little for improving customer satisfaction.

– It is often difficult to ascertain whether the field engineer has a defective part or an incompatibility. The only thing known is that the “darn thing doesn’t work.” It isn’t clear why. Often, additional hardware has to be brought on-site to trouble-shoot and isolate a problem. This causes further delays for the customer.

– Unlike a customer’s environment, product going through manufacturing’s final assembly and test is, for the most part, at the same “engineering design” or “configuration” level. Product being installed in existing customer environments often brings out previously unforeseen product compatibility problems when previously untested system configurations are encountered. Manufacturing will not see the same problems a customer will.

– The folks in the manufacturing organization have engineering and other technical resources at their immediate disposal when they encounter a technical difficulty. Field personnel can’t “walk down the hallway” to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the problem.

– A technical issue affecting revenue shipments always gets high priority as it is visible to those at headquarters who can bring pressure to bear on getting the problem resolved.

– A site-specific customer problem seldom gets the same level of attention that a problem in manufacturing does. Often, the Field Engineer takes the position that it is his/her responsibility to exhaust every last possible issue before requesting help from headquarters. This is done in an effort to “keep from appearing dumb.”

– Engineering never gets terribly excited about a site-specific problem. They are already off working on the next generation product and too busy to be bothered with a “support issue.”

Most successful technology manufacturers fought hard to validate their technology and scurried to get their first product into production. Minimal operational support is put in place to facilitate early production. [Manufacturers often do the minimum because “we can always go back and clean things up later.”] No field product configuration control system is put in place–that too can be addressed “later.” [Loosely translated, “later” means “we aren’t going to do anything about this until we reach complete gridlock and are forced to.”]

Product Configuration Control System: A Process Solution

A Product Configuration Control System links the part and sub-assembly changes initiated in Engineering with the products shipped by Manufacturing and subsequently supported in the field. This process identifies a “base” configuration level of the product based on the configuration level of the major field replaceable parts and sub-assemblies. It also accounts for any other parts or sub-assemblies that influence either the product functionality or how the product is supported. Engineering changes to these items affect the “product configuration level.” The system helps us understand the design evolution of the product as well as what is different from one customer-owned product to another.

As engineering changes are implemented in the products, either by Manufacturing or Customer Service, the Product Configuration Control System provides a mechanism to update a configuration log or label so others can identify both the configuration and the configuration level (what changes have been implemented in the product).

Changes affecting interchangeability of parts, e.g., “fit” or “function” changes, represent the greatest support challenge. To compound the problem, Engineering changes are often implemented in a different sequence than the sequence in which they are approved.

For all but the simplest products, it is unrealistic to expect that a single part number can be assigned that represents both the configuration and the configuration level of a product. A Product Configuration Control System overcomes this deficiency.

Seldom do parts and sub-assemblies maintain a static relationship to one another. Engineering changes are constantly being implemented to correct design problems, support future product enhancements, and improve manufacturability. Without a Product Configuration Control Systems, there is no meaningful way to describe and manage the relationships of different part and product configurations. There is also no means to identify the differences between one product and another.

A Product Configuration Control System is key to successfully managing the configuration and configuration level of technology products, driving down support costs, reducing mean-time-to-repair defective products and building superior relationships with customers.

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If you are looking at this, it is likely you are experiencing difficulties with one or more of the following areas:
• Your part numbering system
• Your engineering change request process
• Your engineering change order process and the integration of product changes with Manufacturing and Field Service
• Your inventory control accuracy
• Your product release process
• Integrating your ERP system with your business processes
We’ve got the track record and expertise to help you with these mission critical issues.
Take the Next Step: Here are a number of different ways we can be of service to you as you begin or continue your journey:
• Call us at +1 775-722-8230 for a no-cost, no obligation discussion about your situation.
• E-mail us with your comments and questions.
• Contract with us to perform a comprehensive Requirements Assessment
• All of the above
• Some of the above
• Something not on our list.

Dave Gardner
Dave Gardner is a management consultant, speaker, blogger and author based in Silicon Valley. He's been in the front row for the birth and evolution of Silicon Valley, the innovation capital of the world. Since 1992, Dave Gardner has focused on making the complex simple. He can be reached through his website, www.DaveGardner.biz, or via phone at +1 408-475-7068.
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