From Kano Models to Bulls-Eyes: Hau Thai-Tang on Product Development

Ford’s director of advance product creation talks about how they’re developing products with a distinct focus on surprising and delighting customers.

Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Noriaki Kano? You ought to be. Hau Thai-Tang, director of Ford SVT and Advance Product Creation is. “I’m a big believer in Kano,” says Thai-Tang, who is probably most well known as being the “father” of the current-generation Mustang (his official title at the time was “chief nameplate engineer”; see 'Developing The '05 Mustang'), before he was promoted to his current positions.

Essentially, what Kano came up with is a model that helps define and prioritize customer needs. There are, Thai-Tang explains, the basic needs. The so-called “price of admission.” These things are necessary to be there, but unremarkable. If they aren’t, then there’s a problem. A little further up the scale are the “more is better” attributes, which are things that are comparably superior to whatever it is that the competition has to offer in the same category.

At the top of the hierarchy are the “surprise and delight” factors. According to Thai-Tang, “There are things that customers don’t yet know about or realize that they want. If they could articulate it, it wouldn’t be a surprise and delight.” He provides an example: the Mustang’s color-configurable (more than 125 different color backgrounds) instrument panel. This was an industry first. Where did they get that idea? Apparently it was while attending the annual SEMA Show in Las Vegas (www.sema.org), where Thai-Tang and his team saw tuners switching out LEDs and the like in interiors (and exteriors, for that matter). They figured that if those customers thought colors were cool, then they’d bring it to the Mustang. Thai-Tang says of discovering these features that resonate, “To really tap into that, you have to have deep insight into emotional needs of the consumer.” So as he and his colleagues are creating the performance SVT products they’re working with speed shops and tuners who can transform ideas into custom reality (e.g., the Ford GTX1 convertible, which was built by Gennadi Design Group (www.vgdauto.com) for the ’05 SEMA show). Ideally, at some point, these concepts will turn into production vehicles (Thai-Tang cites the ’04 Mach 1 Mustang as a SEMA concept that became a produc-tion offering). 

PUTTING ON TOP HATS. The other issue that Thai-Tang is facing is that of helping create more products yet dealing with the cost restrictions that are so characteristic of the industry today. He acknowledges that whereas the norm in years gone by was to approve programs that were 200,000 to 400,000 units (think, for example, of when the Taurus was hot), nowadays, “We try to make a business case at 50,000 or 80,000 units.” And at that: “It’s almost impossible because you have the same overhead and fixed costs allocated.” So, how can this be resolved? “You have to be a lot more flexible in defining architectures and platforms.” Like other vehicle manufacturers, Ford is doing more with top hats: same essential platform with different lids, as in the Mazda6 to Ford Fusion to Mercury Milan to Lincoln Zephyr to... “or what Derrick Kuzak”—former vice president, Product Development, Ford of Europe, current group vice president, Product Development, The Americas—“and his team have been able to do in Europe with the C1 architecture,” which has given rise to the Mazda3, the Ford Focus (the European version), Volvo S40 sedan/ V50 wagon, and the Mazda5. Thai-Tang says the way that vehicle programs must be considered is in the context of the family, or the variants, not just singular vehicles. “You can’t go in and say, ‘Approve this one first and we’re going to do three more eventually.’ We need to look at the whole business case, not one car.” So it might be four different top hats with 80,000 units each. This way, one vehicle doesn’t have to carry the burden of development and engineering costs. “It’s a fundamental shift in the way we approach products,” he says.


HITTING THE BULLS-EYE. One of the problems that could occur with this proliferation of models off of a single platform is that there could be homogeneity. While Thai-Tang acknowledges that it is a potential outcome, they’re now paying attention to keeping it from happening: “It starts with having a lot of clarity about what the primary brand starts with.” He cites as a good example of a shared platform yet distinctive vehicles is the C1. “We had very clear definitions of what a Mazda is, what a Volvo is, and what a Ford in Europe is. We haven’t had the same level of separation with Ford, Lincoln and Mercury in North America, primarily because we don’t the same level of clarity around what those brands stand for. That’s something that Mark Fields”—executive vice president, Ford Motor Co., and president, The Americas—“is really pushing for—really distinct brand definitions.”

He uses the Mustang as an example of how a clear definition can help not only product development, but also the way that the product is introduced to the market. He says they’re using the concept of a “brand bulls-eye,” with the brand message as the center of the target. The three rings around that are image, product, and value. “Mustang had a very clear brand bulls-eye,” he says. “Fast, fun, affordable.” The fast is the product itself. The fun is the image of the product. And the affordable is the value proposition. Clearly, the focus works.