Sitting in the front passenger seat of my 2003 Mini Cooper was an engineer from one of the domestic automakers. As we drove down the road—a typically bumpy southeastern Michigan thoroughfare—he commented about the squeaks and rattles he could hear. I am fully, maddeningly, aware of those noises. It's hard not to be when you have a short wheelbase car with performance run-flat tires that is built in England for a German company. What part of that description does not suggest there is an audible quality gaffe or three to be found?
As we drove on, said engineer remarked that he'd heard a radio report about the Mini's many quality complaints. In fact, the car didn't rank near the top in any of the quality rankings, but nevertheless had amazing customer loyalty. Of this, too, I am aware. It's hard not to be when the car you sometimes dislike seduces you with its looks, charm, and personality to the point you're often willing to forgive its transgressions. However, this confused the engineer. Isn't, he asked, quality the ultimate measure of desirability?
It's easy to understand his confusion, especially when everything in corporate life is put through a perverse reductio ad absurdum filter. Designed to eliminate risk, the filter states that components, systems, and complete products can/should/must be measured on quantifiable scales against every other component, system, or product so that the manufacturer knows where it stands, not only against the competition, but with the target buyer as well. Put the right parts together in a proven package and buyers will flock to your door. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.
Don't get me wrong, quality is important. Very important. Without it, you're not even in the game. However, without a sense of mischievousness and passion—the two go together—you might as well be making the automotive equivalent of Wonder Bread. It's bland. It's wholesome. It's vitamin fortified. And it does nothing more for most people than keep their sandwich ingredients from spilling out over their hands and onto the floor. Trade this for a multi-grain bread, or roll it up in thin flavored bread, and you have something people want, not just something they need. It's not like you have to reinvent the wheel to accomplish this, either. After all, do not all the same basic ingredients come off the shelf? Are they not combined to create a meal? Is it not the way in which they are combined and the manner in which they are presented that truly makes them different? Is this not as much a product of imagination as it is of the quality of the ingredients? Then why crank out white bread products when you can create something truly spicy—even unique—from an imaginative mixing of known ingredients? In doing so, are you not setting yourself apart from the competition in both image and standing? Does this not set you apart, and cause the consumer to reconsider you the next time they're in the market?
Mistakenly following the quantifiable path not only gives you white bread products, it can give you iDrive when what you really want is an iPod. Or to put it another way: Would you want to drive a perfectly reliable—but boring—transportation appliance, or a “scratch me behind the ears/c'mon let's play” kind of car? The choice, I think, is obvious.