At Unifize, we initially found it hard to articulate the problem we were trying to solve.  Thankfully, we learnt that customers are always willing to help out, even if they don’t realise it!

We show how we used these customer interactions to define and bring life to a core concept of ours: communication processes.

Customer development in action

“I think it’s brilliant,” the CEO of a USD 100m manufacturer of power generation equipment told us in January 2018 after we ran through a presentation of our proposed product.

I glanced across the table at my Co-Founder, Lakshman, in joyful confusion, as if to say “That’s great. But what exactly is brilliant about it?”

We were at the end of the first phase of customer development and were still unable to articulate what our product actually did, or even what the problem we were solving was.

Luckily, the CEO started filling in the blanks for us.

“All the technologies we currently have in our factory – the ERP, CRM and PLM – are used to optimise our business processes.  However, we still have issues when anything goes wrong.  Or even if it doesn’t. Things just seem to take so much time and cause so many problems in the…communication process.  Your product would solve that problem, wouldn’t it?”

Another glance.

“Well, of course,” I said with unwavering confidence.

Putting the pieces together

There are always multiple a-ha moments in a startup journey, but few are as profound as when a customer gives you insights into how they think you can actually solve their problems. In this case, the CEO had also inadvertently given us a corner piece in our puzzle: a simple way of explaining what we did.

Over the next several months, we iterated through a series of assumptions with 50 companies in 4 countries to establish and develop our thesis about the nature and impact of failures in communication processes for manufacturing and engineering businesses.

It may not look like it, but the following diagram went through at least ten such iterations, as we tried to figure out the relationship between communication, communication processes, and business processes for a sales engineer as she tries to complete a quote for a custom product:

The intersection of communication and business processes for a sales engineer quoting for a custom product

The birth of a new movement

This wasn’t entirely new to us.  Both Lakshman and I had spent almost a decade each managing communication problems in manufacturing and engineering environments.  We had both tried (and failed) to use Slack, Whatsapp and other tools to solve these problems.

We also knew that these companies often believed that communication was the cause of rather than solution to their problems.  This meant that they were inclined to solve their problems by constraining communication with more processes and systems, often manifesting in zombie-like ‘enhancements’ to their ERP or CRM.

However, if you look closely at the chart above, you can see that many of the processes inherently depend upon communication. In fact, the processes are communication.  

They behave like processes in that they occur in parallel or in sequence with one another.  However, their inputs, outputs and methods are necessarily iterative and unpredictable.  Trying to constrain them is like putting a square peg into a round hole.

Costing for a custom product is just an example of what the CEO at the power generation business was talking about when he was referring to his broken communication processes.  In reality, you find these communication processes appearing throughout most organisations, especially whenever a business process fails.

Fance watching a movie?

If this all still seems a little abstract, think of what happens when a group of four friends has to book a movie.  

  • You first need to agree on what movie to watch.  You might use Whatsapp or email to bring everyone into agreement. 
  • Once agreed, someone now needs to book the movie.  They might do this online or by calling the theatre.  
  • The same person now needs to get back to the group to tell them that this is done.  
  • At the time of the movie, each group member now needs to organise transport to get them to the theatre on time.

ie this is a communication process (or a series of communication processes, depending on how you look at it).

However, think about the number of places that things could go wrong.

Suppose the theater is sold out or the movie is screening at a different time, or if it’s raining and there is no transport, possibly meaning that someone now has to drive and pick up the others.

When things go wrong, you can’t predict exactly what will happen.  The only thing you can know for sure is that it will result in more communication, possibly involving different groups of people with different objectives.

Now, imagine you are booking fifty different movies a day for hundreds of people.  Further imagine you and your friends’ livelihoods depend upon the speed and efficiency of how you book and watch these movies together.  

You might now be able to understand a small part of the daily life of the sales engineer we talked about earlier, and what we mean by a communication process.

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