Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bottom-up tweaking – or top-down defeaturing?

Here is an article from the most recent newsletter of the Suitable for Growth project at the Universe Foundation. You can read the rest of the newsletter here. 

Is it possible to defeature a product created for a developed world market – a top-down approach – or should you start bottom up? Or put in another way: Is it in fact possible to change a high-end product solution to a mid-market product solution?
This is a critical question when a Danish company sets out to target the Chinese mid-market.

Western companies are trying to lower their prices in order to compete in the Chinese mid-market. Chinese companies are trying to raise the quality of their products to compete with imported brands. The prices and quality of Western and Chinese products are converging – but they arrived at the same level from different directions.

A western company that wishes to adapt or change its existing product to make it better suited for a lower cost market – in emerging markets or in the West – often finds this difficult, painful and not sufficient to lower prices substantially.

“Transplanting” a western product 1:1 for production in China can give some savings due to lower cost of manual labor, etc., but often not enough to compete in the local mid-market.

Defeaturing the product by removing specific nice-to-have features and functionalities can bring down costs further, but likely still not enough for the product to become competitive in the Chinese mid-market, where prices are typically 50% lower than in the high-end segment.

One reason could be that the original product and the entire value chain, which surrounds it, are ”native” high end. The functionality, the quality, the supply chain, the marketing, and the development efforts are all rooted in the Western culture and economy, and the various elements have been optimized as a system for this context.

Individual elements may not be easily removed, and even if they are, the result may not affect costs substantially.

What’s really needed is a radical re-engineering of the product and the processes to eliminate the things that don’t add value, while keeping or even adding functionalities and features that customers are willing to pay for.

However, such radical cost innovation can be rather difficult to execute on its own for a Danish SME, as it can be costly and it also challenges the organizational mindset and culture.

Starting from bottom instead

Re-designing an existing product, which was originally developed for the Western market and for manufacturing in the West can be described as a “top-down” product development – and as described, this approach tends to be both difficult and insuffiicient for reaching the Chinese mid-market.

Instead, companies might consider using a “bottom up” approach – as one of the participants in the SfG project did.

They found a local manufacturer, which had developed a solution for matching a certain set of functions and a level of quality, which could be suitable for the particular low-end customers that the company was trying to target.

Then the company added a number of tweaks that raised the functionality to a level where the product had positive differences compared to competitors, and which added a certain feel and functionality that lifted it beyond being merely ”good enough” to a level where the company felt comfortable lending their name to it.

This allowed them to offer a new line of products at 50% of the price of their high-end products.

One could call this approach ”tweaking from the bottom”.  It offers some interesting potential advantages over a ”defeaturing from the top” strategy.

Just like a product developed in the West is ”native” high-end, a Chinese product will be ”native” low cost, in the sense that the way it was developed, the components used and the manufacturing process is grounded in Chinese circumstances. Likewise, the features it offers and its level of quality are based on the local producers’ knowledge of the market.

The bottom up approach makes full use of this local knowledge.

Doing what you are best at

One of the greatest obstacles to the top-down defeaturing is culture.

Western engineers may not have the inclination to take away features and essentially making a great product less great. Also, they don’t likely have the insights to prioritize on behalf of customers in a low-cost market.

In contrast, the bottom-up tweaking approach gives the Western engineers a chance to do what they are best at: developing solutions that are better. By tweaking something that is not quite up to Western standard and adding a few selected touches make a real difference.

For an SME company, it is demanding and risky to develop a completely new solution that is radical enough to create the cost reductions that are needed to compete in the Chinese mid-market. Indeed, radical innovation is in itself a very western and high-end approach, compared to the incremental, market driven way, Chinese companies typically use.

By starting from an existing, locally developed solution, the investment in innovation from the SME is limited to the tweaking of the product – and for this, the company can typically draw on knowledge from its high-end products.

This also indicates that as markets, production and development become more globalized, Danish engineers and designers could find an important role – and employment - specifically focusing on tweaking and improving low-cost designs to lift them beyond being merely “good enough”..  

5 approaches to cost reduction

1)      Local production in China: Manufacturing of the same product 1:1. cost reduction mainly achieved through reduction in labor costs, transportation costs and import tax

2)      Defeaturing: Removing nice-to-have features and functionality. Costs reduction achieved through lower product (material) and process costs.

3)      Cost innovation: Re-engineering the product and processes. More fundamental changes of product and manufacturing processes adapted to the local situation. Costs reduction achieved through lower product (material) and process costs.

4)      Radical innovation: Start from scratch. Clean slate development of new product, based on deep knowledge and insights into customers need and local manufacturing processes and competences.

5)        Tweaking bottom up. Building on the inherent low cost of a Chinese designed product, and adding value by tweaking up some features to make the product stand out in the market.

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