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Product Management: Quality Function Deployment (QFD)

Definition: Quality Function Deployment, or QFD, is a model for product development and production popularized in Japan in the 1960’s. The model aids in translating customer needs and expectations into technical requirements by listening to the voice of customer.

What is quality function deployment?

Although it might sound like a newfangled testing methodology, Quality Function Deployment (QFD) has a 50-year track record as a method for putting customer needs first throughout the entire product development process. Focusing consistently on customer desires, QFD ensures these are consistently considered during both the design process and various quality assurance milestones throughout the entire product lifecycle.

By continuously circling back to the Voice of the Customer, QFD ensures every technical requirement takes the customer into account, using matrix diagrams such as the House of Quality to drive customer value into every stage.

History of quality function deployment

Developed in 1960s Japan, QFD was imported to the United States in the early 1980s and caught on thanks to its popularity and successful track record in the automotive industry. Copying the model from manufacturers such as Toyota and Mitsubishi, the “big three” American car makers used QFD to bring customer centricity to their industry.

Once adopted, QFD shortened design cycles significantly and reduced the total number of employees required in the design process. Shifting the focus from bottom line cost analysis to customer satisfaction brought innovations and increased sales of domestic vehicles after the surge in popularity of Japanese imports in the 1970s.

Today QFD and the House of Quality can be found in a variety of industries and are part of the Six Sigma toolbox.

How does quality function deployment work?

The Quality Function Deployment process begins with collecting input from customers (or potential customers), typically through surveys. The sample size for these surveys should be fairly significant because quantifiable data will carry more weight and avoid letting any outlier comments drive product strategy in the wrong direction.

After completing the surveys and aggregating the data (along with competitive analysis when applicable), it’s boiled down into the Voice of the Customer. These customer requirements, requests, demands, and preferences are framed as specific items and ideally ranked in terms of importance. These are then listed on the left-hand side of the House of Quality matrix and represent what customers want the product to do.

From here, the technical requirements can be created, with each of them tying back to the Voice of the Customer items identified in the signature Quality Function Deployment matrix, the House of Quality. These Voice of the Customer items will continue to trickle down into other stages of product development and deployment, including component definition, process planning, and quality control.

When the product is “done,” the Voice of Customer requirements initially identified in the process should be clearly met (or intentionally left out) and the product can be released with the confidence that it is meeting the needs of customers.

Quality function deployment advantages and disadvantages

Quality Function Deployment benefits companies primarily by ensuring they bring products to market that customers actually want, thanks to listening to customer preferences at the beginning of the design process and then mandating these needs and desires are met throughout every aspect of the design and development process. In short, if something isn’t being built because a customer wants it (or it provides underlying support for a customer need), it doesn’t get built at all, which can prevent technology from driving strategy when it’s not directly beneficial to the customer experience.

Constantly and consistently circling back to the customer might seem like overkill, but it quickly identifies—and often cuts short—any activity that doesn’t work toward the ultimate goal of providing products customers want to buy and use. And by limiting product development activities to just the things customers are asking for, the overall process is faster, more efficient and less expensive.

Since collecting customer inputs and applying them throughout the product development process is such a cross-functional activity, it can also increase teamwork and ensure the entire organization is aligned around the same goal of customer satisfaction instead of competing with other internal priorities.

QFD doesn’t come without its share of downsides. First of all, it can be a seismic change for some organizations, particularly those with an established process primarily focused on profitability and cost reduction. While QFD should ultimately result in both of those objectives as well as satisfied customers, switching the primary motivation to customer satisfaction can be jarring and meet some resistance, particularly if the company thinks it’s already doing a great job with this.

The tunnel vision focus of QFD on the customer can also have some negative repercussions if customer needs drive up product costs or delay technological innovations that could benefit the company down the line. QFD’s customer focus also places a huge emphasis on survey results, which if poorly designed or executed could push a company in the wrong direction, and also don’t account for changes in customer needs and desires that may emerge after the product design process has commenced.

When to use quality function deployment

As soon as there is a well understood customer and their challenges and desires have been quantifiably captured, QFD can be incorporated into the product development process. It is most effective when it is used throughout the entire product lifecycle, as its main purpose is to ensure a constant focus on the voice of the customer. You can’t “check it off” as completed since it is an ever-present ingredient every step of the way.

QFD is most appropriate when companies are focused on relatively iterative innovation versus something completely new, since there is a large base of customer feedback and input to drive the process. When a product is creating a completely new category it’s more difficult to fully articulate the voice of the customer since they don’t necessarily have a frame of reference, but even in these cases carrying forward what is known about customer needs and preferences can provide value.