Editor’s note: The case study below focuses on a team that learned the hard way how to pivot and succeed by synchronizing product development with customer requirements. The author, Frank Robinson, co-founder of Product & Market Development Inc., is an early practitioner of a customer-focused strategy that is being widely adopted to increase the chances of success for U.S. technology startups. Robinson’s article originally appeared in lean startup advocate Steve Blank’s blog.
Intel was angry with a supplier about their third-generation wafer inspection system. “How dare you,” the fab manager said. “We have to shut down production to setup your machine.” He blocked new business for two years.
The supplier’s CEO directed his business unit general managers to take a SyncDev workshop. The inspection system manager decided to use it to develop his fourth-generation system, an 18-month program.
Though development was already underway, I kicked-off SyncDev training course in early November. The core group — a cross-functional team that would attend all customer meetings and could make all the business and technical decisions within a set envelop - consisted of product manager, hardware and software engineering managers, applications analyst and a software designer. We would travel throughout the U.S. and Asia to test sell a validation prototype, listening to and facing each customer one by one just as a jury does with each witness.
The first wave of meetings was with five US customers. In San Jose, near the factory, we met with engineers from UltraTech Stepper, a friendly account. We provided a quick product overview, which earned us the right to ask questions about their department’s mission, goals, operations, volumes, tools, methods and success metrics.
“What problems are you having?” we asked. An hour-long design review followed in which product limitations were openly disclosed. For 30 minutes we discussed who would use it, how often, how would you justify it, and where does it rank on a list of purchase and to-do priorities? At the end, the customer asked, “Where’s off-line setup?” The product manager said, “It’s in the release after this.”
We next flew to Boise, Idaho, where 17 people from Micron asked the same question at the end. The product manager responded with the same answer.
That night we took a red-eye to JFK in New York and hoped on a commuter flight to Burlington, Vt., for a 9 a.m. meeting at IBM. At noon, the boss said, “You guys have no credibility. We’ve asked for off-line setup for years but no one’s listened!”
Leaving the parking lot, the two engineering managers sat in the back row of the van and argued. The product manager who was driving whispered to me, “For years they said no one needs off-line setup. Now they’re arguing about how to do it.”
That night we flew to Orlando to meet with AT&T. For them, off-line set up was not an issue. The same thing happened the next day in Austin.
Off-line set up had disappeared into the team’s rear-view mirror.
In late November we were on the road again, this time to meet with IBM in Fishkill, N.Y. After a 15-minute overview, the IBM guys asked about off-line set up. After we responded, their boss said, “Gentlemen, this meeting is over. We don’t want to hear about your roadmap. Please leave!”
Humiliated and depressed, our ride to the hotel felt more like one in a hearse than a van. Worse, we knew we’d hear the same thing the next day. Still, a metamorphosis had begun. The product manager described it this way:
Agile is nothing new for anyone who does software. I see it moving into the hardware world more and more as well. It's a great idea, but takes a lot of leaps of faith on the part of the team involved (and an even bigger leap from the upper management). With the story above, the amazing part isn't necessarily that this new methodology worked...it's that it was accepted immediately once the team decided upon it. That kind of sea change can cause a lot of turmoil in a company.
I love the recommended practices listed at the end of the story. Especially the part that says: •Ask questions. Take notes. Ask question of fact, not opinion, then shut up. Take notes. Tag data and quotes."
A critical part of boosting U.S. innovation is finding ways, as lean startup Steve Blank says, to help startups NOT fail. Blank and Frank Robinson have figured out that startups need to get out of the office and meet with as many potential customers as they can find. In a startup course at Stanford, Blank makes student entrepreneurs meet with at least 100 customers. This is one way we can get our edge back in the global tech competition.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.