I was reading an article recently in BusinessWeek about the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines and the issues the integration teams were facing. For all the technical issues dealing with reservation systems, operations systems and passenger service systems the part of the article that caught my attention dealt with determining which coffee to serve onboard the aircraft.
United had been serving Starbucks and Continental used a company called Fresh Brew. Obviously they wanted to go to one, common food service supply chain and it made no sense to have two different types of coffee.
They assembled a 14 member panel that tested 12 different blends of coffee. After deciding on a lighter roast coffee, they asked the CEO and company officers to sign off on it. Then they took it on the road and asked 1,100 flight attendants to try it and overwhelmingly it was approved.
Following that, it was launched on flights with passengers who collectively protested and initiated a barrage of complaints saying the coffee was watery.
Upon investigation, it was discovered that there was a quarter inch gap between the brew baskets in the coffee makers and the coffee packs which was allowing water to flow into the carafe and diluting the coffee.
Think we’re at root cause?
Actually, the coffee brew baskets were designed that way to allow water to flow around the coffee packs since passengers had complained in the past that their Starbucks coffee was too strong.
Now, what’s the real root cause?
I believe it’s not testing the coffee in live passenger situations. It’s easy to second guess and hindsight is always 20/20, but to do that much taste testing and not use the equipment onboard aircraft that would actually be used to serve coffee to passengers is absurd.
How many times do we do this when we design product or service improvements? We have what seems like a better idea but we either don’t involve the customer or use the product ourselves in the customer experience. We don’t mimic or observe closely how the customer uses the product. We assume we know.
Great design comes from having insights into the customer experience that can only come from living in the shoes of the customer and developing a deep understanding of problems from their perspective. Problems that our new improved products and services should provide a solution for and in doing so provide more value to the Customer.
The key to Lean Design is to be able to do this quickly which means taking prototypes and semi-finished products out to test and getting quick Customer feedback which allows for rapid adjustments.
Steve Jobs had an amazing ability to do this. To listen to the Voice of the Customer and to go beyond it to see the unspoken needs of the Customer.
For United Airlines, perhaps just sitting in a window seat at the back of an airplane drinking a coffee trial would have been enough to avoid this embarrassment.