Mobility Engineer: Chapter 15 - Innovation Skills

Pavan always equated innovation with novelty of the idea. During a discussion, he was surprised when Bharath said that a good idea is only half the story – the other half is about taking the idea successfully to the market.

செய்திகளை உடனுக்குடன் தெரிந்துகொள்ள... இங்கே க்ளிக் செய்து இன்றே விகடன் ஆப் இன்ஸ்டால் செய்யுங்கள்!

The Power of Silence

Prof. Murugan was very happy with the progress that the two young engineers, Pavan and Kavya had been showing in the first time ever, after the inter-college project. He remembered how Pavan was hesitant in the beginning of the project with a new concept and his lack of knowledge in the particular domain. However, both the students had shown great persistence necessary to develop an innovation project from the ground up. The bi-weekly review was due and Prof. Murugan was eagerly waiting for the students to present their validation results.

Pavan and Kavya presenting to Prof. Murugan in front of a white board
Pavan and Kavya presenting to Prof. Murugan in front of a white board

Kavya demonstrated the prototype. She looked very happy and was very enthusiastic while describing the minute details that they captured in the prototype. Prof. Murugan could easily sense the excitement of accomplishment in her eyes. He then asked Pavan to describe their user feedback experience. Pavan was equally excited. He described in detail how all of the users they met agreed that it was a very good solution and they would not mind spending for the offering.

Pavan and Kavya expected Prof. Murugan to be very happy with what they accomplished. But to their surprise, Prof. Murugan stayed very calm. He was speaking less and allowing both Pavan and Kavya to describe their experience as much as possible. Pavan knew Prof. Murugan would mostly do this when he had something unique to teach to his students.

So, he asked, " Prof. Murugan, did we get something wrong?"

"Absolutely not! You have done a great job. But I am trying to assess, how well have you used the power of silence in collecting your users' feedback"

Kavya seemed very confused. User feedback is all about a lot of talking - how to use silence to collect 'better' feedback. Prof. Murugan corrected her saying, "It's not 'better' but 'honest' feedback". During user feedback session, one should strategically use silence to let the user speak more about the experience that he or she is having while testing the prototype. Pavan realised that he should describe in details how he and Kavya conducted the feedback session.

Prof. Murugan listened to the description carefully and pointed out that Pavan and Kavya spend less time collecting feedback from each individual. They noted down the user demography whenever the user verbally confirmed that he or she liked the prototype even if it was with just a 'Yes, this seems good' phrase. Prof. Murugan asked Pavan to identify those users who used minimum words to describe their experience and revisit them for another round of feedback. But this time, they should allow the users to spend more time fiddling with the prototype while Pavan and Kavya stay silent.

Pavan and Kavya made the list of users they are going to revisit. Kavya handed over the prototype to the first user and said, "We thought you may like to have a second look at the prototype and share your feedback".

The user carefully looked at the prototype, used it a bit and replied, "As I said before, this is good".

Kavya said, "Okay" in a tone as if she was waiting for more. This is what Prof. Murugan asked them to do. An awkward silence gripped the whole room as both Kavya and Pavan was expecting the magic of silence to take effect on the user. No words were exchanged for the next 15 seconds and then the user said, "But actually I have a few concerns to share about this solution."

It was a great learning for both Pavan and Kavya. They experienced the power of silence. They could gather huge amount of valuable feedback from the users they could further interview. This helped them to make corrections in their solution and redesign the prototype.

Silence is an extremely powerful tool in effective communication, especially while collecting product feedback.[1] Most of the time customers share their support and cognizance for the demonstrated offerings, but when allowed a pause, they often start sharing potential pitfalls and concerns. This information, at an early stage of a project, often spare an avoidable turmoil. Silence also helps in gathering once thoughts in a proper way while in a conversation. There are science-backed evidences pointing out that silence actually makes individuals smarter.

QFD for translating customer needs into product features

Once the customer needs have been collected using the various methodologies covered so far, it is important to translate them into product features. It has always been a challenge when designing new products, to match customer needs. Prof. Murugan explained a popular tool, specifically in the automotive industry for that. It is called Quality Function Deployment or QFD in short. It was developed in the ‘60s by two Japanese professors Shigeru Mizuno and Yoji Akao. [2] It became popular in Japan in the post World War II era, when Japan wanted to develop its indigenous products, unique from what was popular in the west.

A house of quality is a visual depiction and a methodical approach to carry out a QFD (Figure 1). It starts with listing down ‘what customers want’, along with their relative priorities, as shown on the left side of the chart. The product features or ‘how customer needs will be addressed’ will be listed on the top. The relationship matrix maps each product feature to specific customer needs that it addresses. The feature that caters to most customer demands therefore becomes the most important feature. QFD does not stop with just one house of quality. This is the initial house.

The product features or ‘how’ part in this house will become the ‘what’ in the next level house of quality and the exercise will continue for a few more levels. Starting with the overall product in the eyes of the end customer in the first house, QFD progresses to sub-systems and parts design and engineering, manufacturing process and then quality control for making the product and any parts purchased. QFD offers traceability for which product feature caters to which customer need.

 A simplified Quality Function Deployment (QFD) house of quality
A simplified Quality Function Deployment (QFD) house of quality

One popular example for the usage of a QFD in the early days was the design of Mitsubishi’s Kode shipyard using it to design an oil tanker. In the U.S., Ford and other American car makers faced severe competition from their Japanese rivals in the ‘80s. They started looking at the Total Quality Control tools including QFD, made so famous by the Japanese OEMs. QFD was effectively used for vehicle design in the U.S.

QFD and the exercise carried out is not a one-time static exercise. That is because customer needs keep changing and so does the world of business. The Kano model is popular to understand customer needs and how they keep changing. [3] Developed by Dr. Noriaki Kano, a Professor of quality management at the Tokyo University of Science in 1984, it looks at three types of customer needs – basic features, performance features and excitement features.

As the name says, basic features are the minimal requirements, without which a customer will not even consider looking at a product. These are taken for granted, like safety. Performance features have a proportional increase in customer satisfaction with specific parameters, like fuel efficiency or mileage for a car. Excitement features would delight a customer. They may not have even thought of such features. These categories are not static. What is today a performance feature can become a basic feature in the near future. The QFD is also impacted and should be kept updated with dynamic customer needs.

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Bharath teaches Innovation skills to Pavan and Kavya

Pavan always equated innovation with novelty of the idea. During a discussion, he was surprised when Bharath said that a good idea is only half the story – the other half is about taking the idea successfully to the market. Many good ideas fail when the innovators fail to overcome the barriers on way to the market. Pavan was shocked to hear that out of a hundred good ideas, only two or three become successful innovations. When Pavan loudly wondered what happens to the other 97 ideas, Bharath decided to explain the essential innovation skills in detail.

Creating an insightful idea

How to create insightful ideas
How to create insightful ideas

The innovation journey starts with observing something unusual. A scientist from a world-famous cosmetics company was in Japan for a conference. Just like what many curious tourists do, he visited a traditional Japanese Sake (rice-based wine) making facility. He observed that some of the workers, who were quite aged, had hands that looked very young. Their skin was free of wrinkles, smooth & shining only on the hands. Then the scientist got curious and wondered what the reason could be. He observed that their hands were frequently immersed in the fermenting rice broth. He studied the chemistry of that fluid and isolated molecules that are good for the skin. This discovery led to the creation of a multi-million dollar new product – a range of skin products that sold across world markets.

Here you would observe that the observation was followed by questioning (why the skin of their hands are so good). If he had observed, but not questioned, no innovation would have happened. After questioning, the scientist incubated his thought for some time so that his mind could analyse the reason and the root-cause clearly. Incubating is important as it takes some time for an idea to spark, it does not happen instantly the way they show in movies. The incubation goes on till the association happens. In the case of the Scientist, he was able to associate the good skin with the long hours spent immersed in the fermenting rice liquid. This is the classical “connecting the dots” made famous by Steve Jobs. The scientist got a seed idea and he had to experiment with the liquid (to isolate the molecule that is good for the skin). The scientist should have the experimenting skills to build on his initial hunch and firm up his idea. Practising these five skills is important to create insightful ideas.

Taking the idea to Market

Bharath continued his gyan on innovation and said, “however great your idea is, it will see many barriers on its way to market. Many ideas get killed when they fail to overcome these barriers”. Pavan was curious to know what it takes to overcome these barriers. The foremost of the skills that an innovator needs is entrepreneurial thinking – he should be able to align his idea with an unmet need of the customer. To successfully monetize his idea, he should know how much the customer is willing to pay for his idea. He should also have the uncanny skill of a soothsayer in predicting technology trends. He should be able to visualize how the technology will evolve in the future. He should smartly leverage the latest technologies to create value for his customer. He should also be a magician when it comes to reducing the cost of his solution to that magical tipping point where the customer is ready to pay extra for the additional value offered by his solution. Just like an alchemist who turns base metals into gold, the innovator should be able to convert the technology improvement into an improvement in the user experience. No customer will pay for the technology unless it improves his / her experience. The innovator is also a strategist as he has to carefully protect his innovative idea and create an entry barrier for his / her competitors.

How to take ideas successfully to the market
How to take ideas successfully to the market

Pavan and Kavya got very excited and started discussing about which of these ten skills they have. Bharath asked them to take note of the skills that they don’t have and systematically hone their skills during the course of their project.

Pavan and Kavya discussing with Bharath about Innovation Skills
Pavan and Kavya discussing with Bharath about Innovation Skills

As Pavan and Kavya’s discussion ended, they both started recalling the discussions they have had in the past few months with Prof. Murugan and Bharath. It was a treasure trove when the industry and academia came together to collaborate and innovate for practical challenges faced and unique opportunities to be tapped. Their graduation date was approaching and both of them were excited, even though the event would be virtual. They would seen be qualified engineers, waiting to get started in the industry. It was a transition they had to plan for.

Looking at Bharath’s story, both of them started believing in the power of lifelong learning. No technology or business is permanent and needs to constantly reviewed with changing times. They both made a mental pledge to stay in touch with their alma mater and Prof. Murugan specifically. It will be a win-win situation mutually beneficial both to exchange thoughts and ideas between what was happening in the industry and the academic world.


1 - Strong Mind Strong Life, ‘According To Science, SILENCE REWIRES YOUR BRAIN and MAKES YOU MORE INTELLIGENT’.

2 – History of QFD, QFD Institute

3 - What is the Kano model? American Society for Quality

Connect with Authors on LinkedIn:

Dr Shankar Venugopal | Ramachandran S | Sayantan Mukherjee

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