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Listening, learning and adapting: How Fisher & Paykel's smart design turned a dishwasher in a drawer into a global success

How does Fisher & Paykel design products that fit the needs of consumers? By listening to what they say they want. Ben Fahy takes a look at what this means in practice.

Back in 1986, a couple of Fisher & Paykel employees wondered whether they could fit a dishwasher in a drawer. 10 years of development, testing and investment later, the first DishDrawer was purchased by a Mosgiel woman named Dawn Brockwell. And around 20 years after that, the company has gone on to manufacture 1.8 million of them. Mike Jensen, Fisher & Paykel’s general manager of industrial design, tells Ben Fahy the story of this revolutionary product and explains how it perfectly illustrates the company’s dedication to listening, learning and adapting.

Most people learn to accept the status quo as normal. But good designers – and innovators of all stripes – are always looking for ways to improve things. Everywhere they go, they see problems waiting to be solved. And that was the mindset in the Fisher & Paykel factory in Mosgiel, around 1986, when a couple of guys – an engineer and a designer – stood in the kitchen, started re- evaluating what a dishwasher could be and noticed that we humans really liked drawers.

When they looked at how people were using traditional standing dishwashers, they found they were badly designed from an ergonomic perspective, with people spending too much time bending down. So they thought they’d try and fix that by putting a dishwasher in a drawer that could be placed at the right height. The only problem with that idea was that pretty much every aspect of a traditional dishwasher had to be redesigned for it to work. The team wasn’t fazed by the scale of that challenge, however, and, after that initial insight, they started building prototypes. And, according to Mike Jensen, general manager of industrial design at Fisher & Paykel, the first mock-up they created resembled a filing cabinet because “it was two evenly sized drawers that opened up”.

Of course, having the idea is the easy bit. It’s the execution that’s hard. But the Fisher & Paykel board understood how much potential the idea had to disrupt the market, so it agreed to provide the resources required to properly develop it. Jensen says the major challenge was developing a motor and pump system that could fit within the much smaller drawer size, so it adapted the SmartDrive motor technology it had originally developed for its washing machines. There were then a battery of tests required to ensure safety, reliability and functionality and, when safety was assured and the product had been refined, early models were put in the personal kitchens of staff for ‘field testing’ (because it believed it was onto something big, some secrecy was required

to stop its competitors from catching wind of the idea, to the point where guests at dinner parties of said staff were politely told they should stay put if they offered to clean up). It was around 10 years between that first insight and the first DishDrawer going on sale. A woman by the name of Dawn Brockwell from Mosgiel got the first one in 1997 and the public launch and the overwhelmingly positive response – in terms of sales, international media coverage, awards wins and even an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey – was something of a watershed moment for the company.

“It was very revolutionary in the market and it created a lot of interest,” Jensen says. “And when we introduced it into the US market [in 1998] that really helped us, because it made people aware of who we were.”

Of course, as a relatively small appliance maker located at the bottom of the world, that's an ongoing challenge, but the launch of the DishDrawer played an important role in cementing its position as an innovator in the global appliance market.

MARCHING ON

Making products is hard. And making a revolutionary product is obviously much harder. There are so many unknowns and, as a result, Jensen says there were a few reliability issues among a small number of products in the early years (interesting fact alert: ten years after she bought the first one, Dawn Brockwell was given the millionth DishDrawer and she gave the original model, which was still in perfect working order, to her daughter). But after nine generations, he says it's an extremely well-honed machine now.

“We've changed a lot of the workings behind the scenes that did cause a few problems and now it's a very reliable product. That's satisfying, because each time we make improvements to it.”

The law of unintended consequences shows that when you add in something new, it will probably have an impact on what’s already there. Jensen says that is certainly the case with appliances, but he says it makes sure that doesn’t happen through a combination of rigorous testing and a reliance on good processes.

“We have products that sit on a life test rig and they run continuously over and over again. We do that type of testing to really check, and of course through the development process you accelerate that life testing of specific parts to make sure that they don't fatigue. Then, within development, we do testing of prototype parts – for example, spray nozzle jets – to ensure wash performance. We do a lot of testing on any change we're making to the product. It has to be validated very carefully. We do a heck of a lot of that and that's in-house … We've got very good at making sure we cover off all the bases and understand the consequences of all the changes.”

Fisher & Paykel, which was purchased by the world’s largest appliance manufacturer, Haier, in 2012, has been through a number of transformations to get to where it is now. And Jensen says one of the big ones was moving to the learning first product development model used by Toyota. According to a study by the National Centre of Manufacturing Science in the US, Toyota’s approach was so much better than that of its competitors that it was able to “introduce a new vehicle in the half the time of the US manufacturers with half the number of engineers”, and it was largely due to being “methodical and assiduous in the acquisition of knowledge before committing to any design decision”.

As Colin Gilchrist, Fisher & Paykel’s former general manager of quality, wrote in a report about the transformation: “When compared to our own company using the phase gate system we were plagued with design loopbacks caused by making decisions and setting specification without understanding the full implications on other design, manufacturing and customer interests.”

Jensen says the company, which has around 400 New Zealand-based product development staff and 18 in the industrial design team, now adheres to the principles of LAMDA – Look, Ask, Model, Discuss, Act – and, as a result, he says it’s much better at making sure its decisions are based on actual data and at meeting development deadlines.

Some say the essence of good strategy is knowing what not to do. Ideas are not the problem, the prioritisation of ideas is. And Jensen says a major challenge is deciding how much emphasis to put on potential breakthrough products like DishDrawer while trying to sustain your existing business – or, as Harvard professor of business administration Clay Christensen calls it, the innovator’s dilemma.

“Timing is critical,” says Jensen. “You need to make sure that your business can invest at that point in time. It's a balance between putting resource into the revolutionary products versus the evolutionary products.”

But with the DishDrawer, it managed that difficult balance very well. And, try as they might, its competitors haven’t been able to replicate it. “Our competitors have tried to copy it,” says Jensen. “They had put it on the market, but had problems so had to withdraw it. What they don’t realise is, it’s not a simple piece of engineering. We’ve spent the last 20 years refining our DishDrawer – perfecting it even – so they have a long way to catch up.”

Mike Jensen.

WATCH AND LEARN

The difference between what people say they do and what they actually do is often quite vast. And that’s why Jensen says Fisher & Paykel places so much emphasis on observing customers, looking at the ways our homes are changing and finding out what people need from their appliances.

“It's often the latent needs. If you ask them what they need, they won't necessarily give you the answers. But if you observe them and watch how they move in their environment you can gain some valuable insights into how things could be done better. If you do some market research, it's often when you're having a cup of tea with participants afterwards that something goes off in your head, from something they say about how they use the product or the bugbears they have with how they go about their daily routine of washing dishes or cooking …”

“We try to be as close to our customers as possible, and we actually try to become our customers as much as possible, by having prototypes in our homes, using the products in a real-life situation. That's really important. Also, often you're getting feedback from people who aren't involved in the development of the product, which is far more meaningful than people who are. It's a more impartial view. Even if it is someone's wife or kids commenting on it. That's also why we have The Social Kitchen [at Fisher & Paykel HQ in Auckland] because if people can't have the products in their homes at least they can use them at work.”

By continuously talking, watching and learning, Fisher & Paykel noticed that another ongoing frustration with dishwashers was that plastics never dried properly (in case you were wondering, it’s because they don’t hold much thermal mass). While it may be the very definition of a first world problem, it’s still a problem worth solving (and, as Jensen says, “you definitely don’t want your kids’ biscuits going soggy”), so Fisher & Paykel created the Extra Dry function. There's also a quick wash, which is 30 percent faster, and the sanitised wash, which heats it up to a higher temperature and “is fantastic for young families that have baby bottles”.

In a standard dishwasher, plates are stacked at the bottom and cups are at the top, whereas with the DishDrawer you need to stack both within the same height. This meant it needed to think hard about improving versatility. One way it achieved that was the sliding tines, which can fit thin plates or deep bowls, depending on the setting. The insight was that in a traditional dishwasher, rice, pasta or dessert bowls nested when you stacked them and didn’t separate, so you can adjust the tines to fit your meal. There are also things like height adjustability for the cup racks, which allows for different height glasses to be stacked.

“A lot of work went into those, and it is still ongoing. That's the thing, we started this 20 years ago but product development has actually been working on this continuously, right through the nine generations of the DishDrawer that have been created.”

Just as Fisher & Paykel understood that consumers liked dishwashers but disliked having to dry their wet Tupperware at the end of a cycle, it also understood consumers liked cooking with gas but disliked cleaning their difficult-to-clean gas hobs, so when someone suggested they try to make the trivets retractable, they decided to give it a crack.

“That was a crazy idea in a meeting, where someone suggested it and then someone else said, ‘Yeah, let's build one’. It could've been easily dismissed as a crazy idea, but I guess we have a culture where the most crazy ideas can be nurtured and that smouldering idea does become a flame and grows into something that's quite meaningful.”

TRY, TRY AND TRY AGAIN

Fisher & Paykel’s company culture seems to be defined by a combination of empathy and experimentation (there’s also a culture of loyalty: Mark Elmore, the head of design, has been there for over 30 years, Jensen has been there for 20 years – with a short three-year break in-between – and there are a whole lot of lifers). Fisher & Paykel goes to great lengths to understand the behaviour of its customers and then uses its skills to create products that make their lives easier.

A lot of other appliance manufacturers do similar things, of course. So what explains the innovation gap? Could it be New Zealand’s penchant for tinkering and our number eight wire mindset? Jensen points to famous creations like the Hamilton Jet and John Britten’s motorbikes as examples of that attitude in action and he says it has long been evident at Fisher & Paykel as well.

“There’s a historical culture within the company and it probably exists in wider New Zealand as well. Maybe because we're exposed to that type of lateral thinking it means we as a nation are more open to that type of creative thinking as well.”

Mark Elmore.

For some, relying on industriousness or a spark of occasional brilliance is simply not good enough to compete in a global economy. You need robust thinking, top-notch execution and quality marketing. Fisher & Paykel has all those things now and Jensen says it often talks about the three-legged stool philosophy, where things always work best if design, marketing and engineering are collaborating (the three-pronged Mercedes logo is supposedly a visual representation of this belief).

“I think there's a careful balance there,” says Jensen. “You don't want to sway it too far one way but you don't want to sway it too far the other way as well. It's about keeping what's good.”

Much like the big breweries that are currently buying up craft beer manufacturers, Haier certainly understood what was good when it purchased Fisher & Paykel and was always going to keep it.

“If you change it you've eroded the main reason why you bought it,” Jensen says. “Haier has a very good understanding of the value we offer, so therefore they like what we do and they back us.”

Being based in China, that also offers a great opportunity for the DishDrawer, he says. At present, it is selling the product there, but China is not a huge dishwashing market – at least not yet. But as the middle class grows, they will want the same things we have in the developed world.

“We're actually in a really good position for dishwashing to be picked up. And with the single drawer unit being smaller, it is very well suited to win that market when it does engage with dishwashing.”

EAT YOUR HEART OUT

The modern house – and what we spend our time doing inside it – has changed fairly dramatically in a fairly short time. And, as Jensen says, that means “there are very different needs for appliances”.

With the growing popularity of high-end home cooking and entertaining, more and more people are buying premium appliances. That’s a good thing for the company, of course, but as a premium brand it needs to make sure it gets all the smallest details right. Jensen points to an interesting feature from its oven range that acknowledges some of those modern-day subtleties.

“The light is normally on when something is cooking in the oven. But now people have guests over and they're actually wanting to create an element of surprise; they're not wanting their guests to know what's for dinner until it's presented to the table. So within our ovens you can turn the light off while it's cooking, so that the guests can't see what's in there.”

It’s something you probably wouldn’t think of – unless you were closely observing how your customers were cooking, eating and living. As well as trying to appeal to premium customers, a big part of its brand transformation strategy has been to try to appeal to architects, designers and specifiers, so they’re more likely to suggest to clients they use Fisher & Paykel products. But that relationship goes both ways.

“The insights we gain from the architectural and designer industry are really crucial. We learn a lot about ease of installation through them. And, of course, we learn about the trends.”

One of the major trends has been the way that kitchens have shifted from being cramped little spaces that were tucked away at the back of the house to being a major focal point. But within the kitchen, the role that appliances play has also changed in recent years.

“Back in the ‘90s the appliances were the heroes within the kitchen,” Jensen says. “People worked around the appliances. Now the kitchen's actually the hero and the appliances need to integrate more. The surface of the ninth generation DishDrawer has been flattened off. It's still a friendly look but the aesthetics are more in keeping with architectural styling. Many people also want their appliances to blend in to the cabinetry by using similar materials. It also has to be much quieter, because more houses are open plan. You can't shut the door on it, it's competing with people talking and socialising.”

Another big change is that as house prices rise not everyone can afford their quarter acre pavlova paradise anymore, which means medium and high density housing is becoming increasingly common in some of our urban centres. And that’s where the space-saving flexibility of the DishDrawer becomes paramount.

“The single DishDrawer is a good example of where it can be fitted for apartment living. And having two singles side by side is a fantastic scenario. Part of the beauty of DishDrawer is that you can put it where it's right to put it. Good kitchen design should put the things that are used most in the most convenient places … We hear about some people who have two DishDrawers in their kitchen and they basically use the dishes out of one and then put the dirty ones back into the other. It never actually goes through a cycle into the cupboard, it just goes from one to the next. Another scenario is that some people have two of them, but they only run one most of the time and it's only when they have a dinner party or guests over that they need the capacity to run two. Then the DishDrawer Wide, that's a bigger version where households can do just do one wash a day. In that regard it's quite versatile.”

Speaking of versatility, Fisher & Paykel also called on past experience – and insights – to develop the CoolDrawer, which, as the name implies, is a refrigerated drawer. Like the DishDrawer, Jensen says it worked extremely hard to optimise the space, but there weren’t anywhere near as many technical challenges because it “didn't have to develop a refrigeration system specifically for it”.

So, what’s next? It’s put dishwashers and fridges in drawers. How about a self-ironing drawer? That would solve a perennial frustration.

“That would be great,” says Jensen, humouring me. “But I think we'll just be growing on that philosophy and making products that allow people to make a more versatile kitchen for their needs.”

What about a limited edition 20th birthday special, the FishDrawer, so you can wash your dishes AND cook your fish simultaneously? We’re all too busy these days to do both things separately.

“Well, we have cooked salmon in one of them before,” Jensen laughs.

Sheesh, these guys really have thought of everything.

For more information visit www.fisherpaykel.com.
This story is part of a content partnership with Fisher & Paykel.