Some Assembly Required

I was shopping at IKEA and found a bureau on sale for $30. The display model looked well-made with nice materials and finish. However, as expected, IKEA furniture comes in a box assembly required. No problem as I have plenty of experience. The assembly process took a number of steps:

  • Find a suitable area large enough for the job
  • Get a box cutter
  • Cut the tape and open the box
  • Pull out the pieces and find the instructions
  • Get additional tools (screwdrivers and hammer) as listed in the instructions
  • Identify parts in the box and lay them out
  • Read the instructions to understand the general steps (not details)
  • Start with step 1 and put the parts together
  • … many steps as in the instructions …
  • Put all of the pieces together
  • Test drawers to make sure they open/close properly
  • Collect all packaging materials with the box
  • Dispose of them in the garbage can

The entire process took me about one hour without any rework. Not bad. But I can imagine that customers who are less experienced or less organized would take more time and make mistakes. Just look at the hardware in the picture. The entire process can be an overwhelming and frustrating experience to a first-timer.

The quality of a product is what a customer gets in the final form in their home where they use it. What I bought was a box of parts to make a bureau, not a bureau. There are plenty of opportunities for someone to assemble it incorrectly, resulting in a defective product.

Many internet product reviews with negative comments have nothing to do with poor design, manufacturing or material, but are the result of improper setup or use by the end users. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a defective product in the eye of a customer. How many businesses realize that the post-sale process may impact the quality of a product (i.e. customer satisfaction) just as much as the design or manufacturing process?

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The good news is that some businesses have taken the right steps to simplify the process for their customers. Look at the picture of hardware that came with the bookcase I got from Target. The hardware required for every step was clearly labeled and separated in compartments no need to find or count the right pieces.

I wondered why the bureau was on sale.

Comments 6

  1. leansim

    Great post! I also consider myself an expert Ikea assembler and I found myself knee-deep in components this past weekend. No problem for me, except for searching for the hardware for each step. I love the solution demonstrated with your Target bureau, organized by step. Great improvement!

  2. Pelle

    Last winter I put together a complete kitchen purchased at IKEA. Structured up the job as a small assembly plant with its own logistics flow. Took several hours but the result was good.

  3. wood95

    I bought a shed made by Company X from the Home Improvement Warehouse. HIW delivered it unassembled on a pallet into my garage. After they left, I inspected it and found it to be grossly defective, lucky for me b/c I had not asked myself how I would get the shed parts to the rear of the property – easily 2 hours of mind-numbing and uncomfortable walking and carrying. When HIW brought the new shed and took away the old one, the driver, using his forklift, very kindly put the pallet in the backyard next to the construction site. Then I unwrapped the pieces and found them to be in a grossly un-customer-friendly state. I called the factory to ask if I could discuss my unhappiness with someone in charge, but I was told that customers are not allowed to talk to production personnel. I have since told anyone who will listen not to buy sheds made by Company X. I also told HIW I was unhappy, but I doubt they reworked their supply chain based on that.

  4. Tom Holmes

    This is a thought provoking post from several perspectives. How can companies (1) maximize value to the customer and profitability to the company; (2) how to design for Manufacturing?

    It appears that IKEA is answering the first question by offering a significantly lower cost to a market niche of customers who posess high self confidence and the patience to follow directions. By outsourcing the assembly to the customer, IKEA can offer that value with higher profitability by reducing their MFG overhead.

    However, this outsourced business model has consequences on how to design for manufacturing. The design must be greatly simplified so that an unskilled assembler (no offense to the IKEA customers) can do this at home. This results in the need for simple CAM fasteners and screw drivers, rather than conventional furniture fastening methods (dove-tail or mortise-and-tenon joints) that would require greater skill and advanced tooling. As mentioned previously, outsourcing also hinders the critical feedback loop from the assembler (unless they complain) that is a key driver for continuous improvements.

    So how do your customers define value? How can you best design the MFG value stream to deliver the appropriate balance of cost vs. quality?

  5. Karen Wilhelm

    Visuals with the article are worth 1,000 words! Considering that all the parts come from different cells or runs, why mix them up for the customer? Even better might be to make smaller packages on the board before shrink wrapping so they don’t get mixed when the customer unwraps.

    Does IKEA offer the service of preassembly and delivery if the customer chooses not to be the subcontractor? I have purchased Scandinavian furniture from a store called House of Denmark here in Detroit for years. They offer the knockdown furniture if you are confident about doing assembly, and pre-assembled at a service charge if you want to do your own outsourcing. Some items are always sold assembled because of the problems the customer will encounter. I have never had a problem with durability of the assembled furniture whether done my my husband or by the store another criteria that is hard to establish when a purchase is new but that will determine customer loyalty. I go back to that store when I need new shelves even if it might not be exactly the style I might want because I know exactly what I will get.

  6. Fang Zhou

    These are insightful comments. Thanks.

    It’s surprising how little many companies try to understand the value customers are looking for beyond the goods or services they and every one of their competitors offer. Not all value to a customer is tangible or visible. Companies that strive to understand and deliver such value become the market leaders, transforming the industry and relationships with customers and suppliers, and in the process, changing from merely good to great.

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