balancing your customers' needsDoes completing a project that meets specifications within schedule and budget define a quality project? Not necessarily! Consider the Edsel automobile. The Edsel is a classic example of a “quality” project carried out by an expert project team that produced an innovative, sound design which ended up being a colossal failure. So how can you avoid your project becoming an Edsel?

What Happened to the Edsel?

Ford Motor Company in 1956 created a new car division and an entirely new car, the Edsel, to address the lack of a mid-size car in their product line. Their goal was to design a car “Once you’ve seen it, you’ll never forget it. Once you’ve owned it, you’ll never want to change.” Ford’s top design talent was assigned to the project. They produced a design with many innovative features of which the most talked about was a push button automatic transmission selector in the center of the steering wheel. There was a massive national promotional campaign of the car named after Henry Ford’s son, Edsel – an indication of personal commitment of top corporate management. An estimated 2.5 million people poured into Edsel dealerships on September 4, 1957, “E-day.” But few Edsels were sold and after just three model years, Ford threw in the towel and began forgetting about the Edsel.

Why Did the Edsel Fail?

There is no doubt that the Edsel project was innovative and solidly engineered. Many original ideas incorporated in the Edsel are found on today’s cars such as self adjusting brakes. The project team was top-notch and the project had massive corporate support. One of the primary causes of the failure was Ford’s inability to understand what its customers wanted. Car buyers were turning to smaller, more fuel efficient cars. Ford wanted a car with an unforgettable image but the radical styling turned off customers. The customers decision that the Edsel did not meet their needs demonstrates that the customer ultimately decides if project quality is acceptable or not. Unfortunately for Ford, the decision was not favorable.

The Customer Defines Project Quality

Sony’s Beta video cassette recording (VCR) system is a another example of the customer defining project quality. When home video recording was first introduced, Sony’s Beta system offered a superior recording quality. But the Beta cassettes were limited to one hour of recording. The competing VHS recorders were the first to offer two-hour recording times, enough to record most movies. The VHS manufacturers understood that customers were more concerned about the length of recording time than what they judged to be relatively small differences in picture quality. The Beta format faded from the consumer market again demonstrating that project success hinges on understanding and meeting the customer’s needs and expectations.

Tips For Defining Project Quality

So how do you avoid being the next Edsel or Sony Betamax? It’s an ongoing process of focusing on and balancing the customer’s needs, options and constraints, starting with the following three basic steps:

Tip #1  Keep an Open Mind – No Preconceived Solutions.

It’s tempting to go in to the project thinking that your superior knowledge of the project issues or similar experience should dictate what the customer should want and need – remember the Edsel! It is better to know your customer and their needs before offering any options or solutions.

 Tip #2  Define Customer Needs and Expectations Early.

At the very start of the project ask your customer questions like the ones below to determine their needs and expectations before finalizing the project scope:

1.  If this project were an unqualified success, what would it look like?

2.  What do you see as the biggest issues on this project?

3.  What are your budget constraints?

4.  What are your time constraints and what is driving those constraints?

5.  Do you have any example outputs from previous, similar projects that you can share with us? What did you like or dislike about them?

6.  How and when do you want to get progress updates?

7.  Who will be involved in giving input and making decisions about the project?

8.  Are there any conflicting opinions about the project?

9.  From whom do we need to get buy-in for the project results to be accepted?

Tip #3 Check in on Customer Expectations.

As the project proceeds, periodically confirm that customer needs and expectations are being met. Don’t wait until the end when there is no time left or options available to adjust or course correct.

For more on this subject, refer to Chapter Three, Defining the Customer’s Needs and Expectations in our book The Lead Dog Has the Best View: Leading Your Project Team to Success at