John Bicheno reviews James Adams’ Good Products, Bad Products, McGraw Hill, 2012

I had great anticipation when I heard of the new book by James Adams. His earlier book Conceptual Blockbusting was thought-provoking and fun. I was not to be disappointed.

Good products, Bad products is not a book about lean, but about design and quality, written by a top engineering professor with wide ranging interests and background.

Although design and innovation have been in the lean news recently,  discussion on quality seems to have taken a back seat. Instead, six sigma and DFSS have come to the fore. What a narrow view of quality that is! Perhaps that is due to a current obsession with quantification, KPIs, and assessments. So here we have long-overdue redress, with quality being discussed in terms of ergonomics, craftsmanship, emotion, elegance and sophistication, conservation, and cultural value and not just defect reduction, cost and performance.

Adams urges direct observation rather than market survey. Especially interesting is how these can be at least partly observed. It amounts to multi discipline systems thinking, together with deep appreciation of both the sub cultures of the users and of product “love”. In this latter respect, Adams has views similar to the Hopper and Hopper book reviewed in an earlier LMJ where “professional managers” with little background in the industry were cited as a major failing of western industry. (Adams cites Hewlett and Packard, and subsequent Carly Fiorina).

And, wow, is Adams critical of what he terms “compromise products” resulting from short-termism, “narrow-mindedness” and arrogance!  Take this… “many of the most influential people in manufacturing organizations are both highly opinionated and much less sophisticated than those who spend their time with products”. But users are also to blame. We simply accept or don’t see. There are fascinating examples including a pick-up truck and the “modern” bathroom that is just littered with poor design.

Adams’ book stimulated me to think about the first and last of Womack and Jones’ five principles, value and perfection. I think I have been much too glib on these. What is “value” to customers, and who in fact are they? Cost and performance (over what period?) – or all the factors mentioned above? These are all linked with needs, something that Adams discusses in detail, building on Maslow’s hierarchy. And how do we find out about current needs and, even tougher, future needs? Habits and practices, both good and bad, become engrained and go unquestioned. (Like ‘Toyota Kata’?). And what is “perfection”? Surely after reading Adams you will not take the view that it is simply freedom from defects or “six sigma”.

The thinking exercises at the end of each chapter are provocative. I think many lean managers would benefit from thinking them through. I will leave you with just one: Take two products, “one that fits you extraordinarily well and one that fits you poorly from first a physical, then a sensory, and finally a cognitive perspective. Why are they good or bad fits to you? … Why do you put up with them? … how could they be improved to fit you better, and why do you think these improvements have not been made?”

PS: I have just read an HBR article (April 2013) that reports the results of a huge study into long-term corporate success. Three rules come out of the study: (1) Better before cheaper; (2) Revenue before cost; (3) There are no other rules. So, if you ever believed that waste reduction was the key to success – think again and read Adams!