What do customers want?
It's a question that can sometimes be surprisingly difficult to answer. At John Deere, where listening to the customer has long been a priority, their new Precision Technology program has found entirely new ways to hear what customers have to say.
“There are innovations that customers aren’t necessarily asking for today that we’re working on,” said John Deere’s Jason Daly. “Some that we understand to be customer pain points. Rather than the customer saying, ‘I want you to deliver this particular function for me,’ it’s ‘here’s the problem that I have, can you help me overcome it?’”
Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.” Daly, Deere’s global director of production systems, technology and marketing, might agree. “Over the course of my career, when we would show up to see a customer, we would say, ‘We’re here today to talk about this particular solution.’ Today we’re saying, “We’re here just to talk to you, and observe you in operation.’ … We’re having conversations, pre-meetings during the observation session, and post-meeting surveys.”
No discussion of technology in the heavy equipment industry will go on very long before it comes around to autonomy. It may be a decade away, but in some ways the Precision Technology program was a result of thinking about how the end goal of autonomy affects what sorts of innovations Deere is investing in today.
"Our focus has been how to prepare ourselves to put the stepping stones in place to enable that end state," said Andrew Kahler, John Deere's manager of technology solutions for construction and forestry.
"Our strategy has been to focus on those technology elements that contribute to the end state and deliver those to market so the customer can extract the value from that. And that can help build our tech stack so when the market is ready for autonomy, the technology is ready for autonomy, and we are ready for autonomy."
The customer research process is both informal and formal and extensive. Formally, the Customer Advocacy Group is a program that brings in 12-15 customers so the team can spend several days with them, understanding their operations and their pain points. There is also a panel of 400-600 people that the program uses to address more specific questions.
But listening to customers isn't just a "program," it's a way of life for the organization. "That's what we live for," said Daly. "We wake up every day to spend time listening to customers, working with customers, solving customer problems – delivering solution sets that we believe will revolutionize the space."
He sees his role as "a combination of evolution and revolution." The new approach has expanded the extensive skill set required of a John Deere innovation team member to emphasize soft skills. "We're looking for people interested in technology that have skills in that area. But we're also looking for people who are really interested in people, who are willing to go the extra mile in listening, understanding, and capturing the voice of the customers, and then translating that into true solution sets."
This approach also requires people who can take information and observations and integrate all of it into common themes. Daly said, "All of these factors that are complexities in a customer's daily activities whether it be supporting safety, or innovation, or regulatory pressures they're feeling, or labor shortages – we might have known them in isolation, but when we aggregate that insight, turn it into intelligence, and then validate it through research, we can come back with solution sets that ultimately meet the market demand much more quickly, and that the customer will be willing to invest in much more readily."
Kahler described the process in more detail. "We get our best and brightest together, from engineering, from sales and marketing, from operations, from the field. We present a problem we believe we can be in the space to solve for our customers. We start going through a rapid innovation session and start whiteboarding all kinds of opportunities – where can we leverage our technology stack, or develop new technology, or go to the market and grab technology from other sources such as the work we're doing with our enterprise start-up collaborators program."
Or perhaps you want to mention the recent Bear Flag Robotics acquisition.
The program has already had several success stories, such as the company's Smart Grade portfolio that spans four platforms. "It has solutions not only for customers looking for the premium fully integrated 3D grade control solutions, but it's also got lower-cost entry-level two-dimensional solutions," said Kahler. "There's a little bit for everybody. So I'd say that's the top of the heap right now. But there are a lot of fascinating things coming down the pike."
The program also subscribes to the philosophy that a missed opportunity or even just being late to the opportunity is a greater cost than pursuing an option that doesn't pan out. And so, alongside the many success stories, there have been, of course, innovations that didn't necessarily qualify as complete successes.
The drone business is one such example. "A number of our dealers are still in the business, but it didn't reach the potential that we initially thought it would. "I think there is still a lot of adoption and scaling that still needs to happen in the drone industry" Kahler said. "But given the opportunity to do it again, we'd probably do it again. It's one of those bets you take. Some will succeed, and some will fail, but we need to do it either way."
As for the autonomous future, just how far away is it? For the last three years, John Deere has been asking customers when they think they'll be ready for autonomy, and according to Kahler the answer has always been the same: it's two to three years away.
That may be an overly optimistic view. "Broadly speaking, autonomy is still a long way out," cautioned Kahler. "If you're going to drop an autonomous dozer on a site and just let it go to town, the likelihood of that being successful is low right now."
He went on, "There are a lot of things that need to be put in place. There are a lot of other autonomous machines that need to be working with it."
Both Kahler and Daly believe autonomy will hit the market by around 2030. "But it's going to be focused on specific applications, like mass excavation with articulated dump trucks," Kahler points out. Repeatable production systems lend themselves well to autonomy, while non-repeatable tasks will be a different story. "When you have a site with things going on underground in addition to excavation, in addition to final prep and site development, all of those processes look a lot different every day, so being able to execute those with an autonomous solution is a lot more difficult, and it's just going to take more time to get there."
John Deere's Precision Technology program embodies their belief about the autonomous future and its role in shaping today's strategies and actions. Asked if autonomy is a sort of holy grail for the industry, Kahler immediately pointed out the drawbacks of treating it as such. "You could focus on nothing else until we get this done. What you risk is you have no value to deliver to customers until then, and you bet your entire business on this holy grail.
"We as an organization have to be thinking about the steps we're taking to get there rather than a sprint to the end."