Value innovation refers to developing new product ideas based on the true desires of your customer—even if those desires are still unknown to them.But how do we discover what people want, before they know it themselves?

Focus groups, polls and surveys are the traditional means. But no consumer could have asked for a Polaroid camera in 1940—it was beyond most people’s imagination. A new strategy is both simple and familiar to lean organizations: Kaizen investigative teams. Cross-functional teams (not minimum-wage pollsters) visit customer sites, watch the interaction between customer and product, and listen for unique insights. If a team is made up of representatives from operations, engineering, sales, customer service and a complete outsider or two, think of the multifaceted feedback your organization could collect. The purpose of the visit is to observe your products in use, and listen for the unarticulated needs of the customer.

Team members should have the capacity for creativity and open-mindedness, be prepared to observe first, ask plenty of questions and listen to what is said. Document the complaints as well as compliments. Find people who are not customers, and ask why they’re not. In this way, your team can begin to build a voice of the customer that includes all that is said and unsaid.

This kind of value innovation can create prosperity while you become near and dear to your customers.

The Manufacturer July 2004