“Innovation comes from the producer – not from the customer.” -W Edwards Deming


In the course of teaching Kano Analysis to green belts and others, I frequently talk about the difficulty in uncovering delighters or excitement needs, as the customer often cannot articulate these at an actionable level. Or in other words, “The iPod didn’t come from a focus group”. (For the real scoop on where it did come from, click here.)


While it may be true that no customers conceived of the iPod, or a host of other innovative inventions, it is no longer true that innovation is the sole purview of producers. Take the iPhone as an example – originally designed to work only on one wireless network, it was only a matter of weeks before a team created a way to unlock the iPhone to work on other networks – clearly a desirable feature for customers which Apple decided not to include.


There is now a variety of websites devoted to various hacks for the iPhone to overcome shortcomings in the original product and software design, or enable entirely new functions. While it’s likely that customers who would be interested in hacking their iPhones represent a small subset of Apple’s customer base, this is a highly innovative group.


Will Apple take advantage of these efforts? After all, what better way to build future releases with killer features than to allow your customers to run wild and create them on their own? Time will tell. It is intriguing that despite being one of the most innovative companies in the world, Apple’s customers can still find ways to better Apple’s products.


Your company probably knows more about what is possible than most of your customers; but the lesson I take away from the Apple example is this: some of our customers know a lot more than we do, and we ignore them at our peril.


The concept of customer innovation is not exactly new – Harvard Business Review published an article on it in 2002 – but it does seem to be garnering more attention these days. But how many firms are still relying on the “tried and true” methods of developing products, or worse, adopting a “we know best” position and internally designing products and services with little to no input from actual customers?


I think Deming said it best in this line: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

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