Why should companies learn from consumers? A driver as the designer


In the age of open reciprocal and responsible innovations, the lack of openness in many organizations is difficult to appreciate. Why do organizations hesitate in learning from all around, particularly outsiders, the users and non –users of their product and services, supply chain actors, as well as of course competitors, shop floor employees, repair shop owners, workers et cetera. Recently, I had the opportunity to study machines used to dig the earth and open trenches, move the debris et cetera. I was keen to know whether the heavy equipment designed by a major world-renowned company will have scope for improvement and if so can the lowly-paid drivers of these equipment suggests design improvements?

While driving back from Porbandar, after recognising educational innovations at school level (more about it next week),  we stopped by at a restaurant for a cup of tea. Several of these machines were parked in the compound. Out of curiosity, I talked to the driver, Aizaz from north India and enquired as to whether he saw any such scope for redesigning the machine. The initial reaction was, it was such a good equipment made by such a good company, how could it have any defect. When I pursued further, he hesitated and said he was hardly educated much, what could he suggest. I was not going to give up, I persisted and that maybe there are features where his life might become better in operating the earth digging/moving equipment. I was not making much progress. The hesitation continued. I then asked, okay tell me about the parts which have a more frequent breakdown and with some design changes, the loss could be reduced and the company can benefit.

Now his face perked up. He started the equipment, pressed some buttons, and raised the height of the equipment on stilts. Went below the vehicle and showed me a coupling, he called it chauki. He said when this coupling breakdown, it also damages the hydraulic pump situated just above it. If the location of the pump could be moved aside, the damage can be reduced. Instead of loss of Rs 40,000, only the coupling will need to be changed and that costs much lesser. Obviously, the loss to the company was more important for him than the reduction of drudgery to him. Ask a human resource manager who will unhesitatingly blame low-income employees for not having the right attitude, not wanting to work harder and so on.

I pursued further, what else can be changed. I saw a tube cover on the mudguard over side wheel. Why this, I asked. When he got down from the driver’s cabin while working on the backside, he often put his feet on the mudguard and then jumped down. The colour of the mudguard got damaged by the frequent rubbing of feat, he did not want that to happen, hence the tube covering. What a pride in the glory of his equipment. He would wish it to shine as long as possible.

Now, I was going to come back the first question I asked. What about his convenience in performing various tasks. He smiled and took out the grease pump. This pump required two people, he had to seek somebody else’s help to pump so that he can hold the side for pumping grease in the load lifting arms. If the pump could have  a pressure chamber so that one can pump first and then adjust the outlet pipe and put the grease in the machine, the problem would be solved.

A driver as a designer: Aizaz was actually a smart designer but no management school might teach it, no research and development manager of a company would even remotely suggest taking design inputs from mechanics and drivers, and even if they do take it, they would never acknowledge it, much less reward them. What a sense of design priorities of Aizaz: first reduction in cost of maintenance for the company, then look and feel of the device and then personal convenience.

We need new theories of motivation, Maslow fails again.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place