Learning from the Marketplace to Promote Internal Change

As noted in our previous post, “knowledge” is one of the most powerful change agents, and all sorts of learning can become a catalyst for change.

One very effective source of knowledge is our marketplace, which includes our customers and competitors.

By learning from the market we can often see possibilities for innovation that have been overlooked. Of course learning is only the first step, as the gained knowledge must then be applied.

For example, in the early 1980’s, Toyota believed that to grow their sales in the United States they would need to have manufacturing facilities here, but they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So they entered into a joint venture with General Motors, opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States.

After they achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to successfully open plants in a number of U.S. locations, applying their knowledge each time.  While General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high quality products at low cost, and while many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.

Learning from the customer can also open our eyes to new possibilities. But it’s important to recognize that customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why.

So making the extra effort to go beyond just “what they need” to gain knowledge is critically-important. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context.

What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? And consider that they don’t ask because they don’t know enough about your process
to suggest it, and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it!

Similarly, knowledge of the competition can produce a greater sense of urgency or a heightened “willingness” to change, and in many cases can give us better insights as to the best ways to satisfy our customers and achieve a competitive edge.