User Experience - an Example from Manufacturing

A user experience article from the manufacturing sector may seem out of place in an IT blog but I'm including this story as it clearly illustrates how a mixture of entrenched ideas and lack of contact with end users can contribute to the demise of a company.

With a freshly obtained bachelors degree in Engineering, my first employer was with Coles Cranes in Sunderland, G.B - a manufacturer of mobile cranes. It was the late 1970‘s and the company was investing in new manufacturing machinery and attempting to keep ahead of – or at least keep up with - rivals‘ technical developments. Even then the mobile crane market was international, an important proportion of Coles’ production was exported throughout the world and important competitors were Grove, from the USA, and Kato from Japan.

Problems with reliability – seemingly a widespread British issue at the time – were being slowly overcome and people were proud of the fact that while the cranes weren’t the top performers in the world – I understood that Grove held that honor due to their advanced manufacturing capabilities – Coles’ cranes were solidly built and did what they were supposed to do. The customer would receive a crane that would really lift the loads written in the specification.

However, I also learned that sales were being lost to rival manufacturers – in particular to the Japanese.

Round about this time two things happened that revealed long-standing issues in the Coles design philosophy.

First, the company managed to get hold of one of the Japanese cranes for a week – an unheard of event. The Coles R & D department put the crane under the microscope to find out as much as possible about how it was designed as well as putting it through its paces on the factory’s test bed. The latter was particularly interesting as they found out that that – if I remember correctly – the crane began to tip at something like 95% of its nominal capacity at some radii.

The second thing was that someone from management managed to speak with people from the operational side of one of Coles' important customers - a company that had started buying Japanese cranes instead of Coles'. Once more, this was an unheard of event - normally sales representatives were restricted to meeting staff from their customer's purchasing department. For the operational management, the case for buying more Japanese cranes was clear - they were the first choice of the operators and therefore earned the company more money than the Coles cranes, which tended to spend a significant proportion of their time unused. The reasons they were the first choice of the operators were also clear and nothing to do with either lifting capacity or reliability: they had better heaters and/or air conditioning and more comfortable seats than the Coles machines.

Rapid redesign of the Coles operator cabs, including use, if I remember correctly, of Ricardo seats, probably helped sales but other problems, including the depth of manufacturing and high value of the British Pound due to North Sea oil, contributed to collapse of Coles' then owners and the company's takeover by Grove in 1984 (now part of the The Manitowoc Company, Inc) and closure of the factory in 1998.