Product Management and the Kitchen Analogy

These are some words I first wrote in 2016 which I thought I had lost, but a bit of searching sometimes pays off. I have made a few edits.

I’ve used this analogy a few times recently so thought I would write it out and see if it resonated with anyone else.

A few years ago whilst on vacation we visited a fascinating house called Cragside near Rothbury, Northumberland.

This house was, at one time, owned by the enterprising Richard Norman Shaw who created all sorts of ingenious devices including the world’s first hydro-electric power station.

One of the most interesting places in the house is the kitchen part of which is shown in the title image of this post. This place is packed full of gadgets many of them designed and crafted at Cragside.
 
For me this picture represents the way that we have traditionally implemented IT services for customers. There are specific gadgets everywhere, each of the built for a purpose. The cabinets are all custom built to fit the space available or free-standing. There’s very little that was manufactured, it was nearly all crafted.

This wasn’t unusual for kitchens of it’s time but this situation had started to change in the 1920s and following World War II a new type of kitchen became popular – the fitted kitchen. The fitted kitchen is what most of us have in our houses across Europe and the USA today.

There are a number of interesting characteristics to the fitted kitchen that are analogous with the shift that we need to take in the way that we deliver solutions.

The Building Block is the Cabinet

The basis of the fitted kitchen is the cabinet. There are only a few standard sizes for cabinets (using the UK numbers):

Floor standing cabinets are 600mm deep.
Wall mounted cabinets are 300mm deep.
Cabinets are 900mm tall.
Cabinets are available in multiples of 100mm and 150mm wide – 300mm, 400mm, 450mm, 500mm and 600mm.
Most floor standing cabinets are 600mm wide.

This limited set of building blocks are what is used in the vast majority of situations. People could still have custom built kitchens but they don’t because this choice of building blocks is good enough and the most cost effective.

A lot of the building blocks of solution could be standardised, there is no business advantage, for the developer or the customers, to building something outside of the building blocks. 

We do, however, need to understand from the market what the “cabinet” is that defines the standard in each of the areas where we want to develop solutions. Standardising on the wrong thing is as costly as continuing to custom build.

Everything Else Aligns to the Standard

The standard size for a washing machine in the UK is 540mm deep, 595mm wide and 850mm high. This size fits perfectly inside a standard cabinet space (the reason the washing machine is 540mm deep rather than 600mm is to allow room for pipes at the rear).

Are these dimensions the ideal size for a washing machine? I have no idea, but it is the ideal size for a kitchen into which it is being fitted.

What’s true of washing machines is also true of tumble driers and under-cabinet fridges and freezers.

There are appliances on the market that are 500mm wide, but the choices are limited.

The appliance manufacturers have aligned to the cabinet standard, they aren’t expecting the cabinet standard to change because it isn’t ideal for them.

There are Edges and Constraints

If you are fitting a kitchen into a room that was built before the war (we have quite a lot of those in the UK) it’s highly likely that the room won’t ideally fit the standard cabinets. It’s not even certain that the walls will be straight. 

There will be gaps at the end.

When a kitchen is being refitted there are also constraints created by the location of the doors, windows and plumbing.

That’s where a great kitchen designer and fitter come in.

They’ll handle the gaps at the end and make the most of the constraints. They’ll take a length of worktop and make it fit into the space in a way that makes it look like it’s was meant to be there.

The same is true for many IT solution, we are fitting them into customer environments that haven’t been custom built to take them. Experienced designers and fitters make them work in the space provided provided by the customer.

It’s worth noting here that houses in the UK are now build with rooms that are a multiple of 600mm wide and deep. There are no longer any edges because they’ve been built knowing what the standard is.

There is Room for Flexibility

Not only is there a need to fill the gaps, but there is also a lot of flexibility in the building block approach. If a customer already has an oven then there’s no need to mandate the use of our oven, if their oven adheres to the standard it will fit right in.

There are only a few choices for standard cabinet design but there are more choices of doors than I care to count. The door design has a limited impact on the effectiveness of the kitchen and no impact on its running costs, but the design of the door has a massive impact on how a customer perceives the kitchen.

There are numerous configurations for what goes inside the standard cabinet – drawers of various sizes, shelves of various sizes, combinations of the two.

This flexibility has been built in from the start. The impact on the cost of the standard building block is minimal. Most cabinets come with holes in them to allow shelves to be fitted at various heights and to be changed at any time. People don’t have to drill holes to make adjustments, the flexibility is built in.

The Overall Result is Unique

The use of standard building blocks which allow flexibility and the empowering of skilled designers and fitters to fill the edges and work around the constraints means that every kitchen is unique. This is particularly true for kitchen refits into older housing.

Sometimes the uniqueness is just in the shelf configuration, sometimes it’s more significant, but it’s all built from a standard cabinet baseline.

Customers deserve something unique that fits there needs, but that doesn’t mean that it all has to be unique.

The Service is What Sells

Most kitchen fitting companies offer free home measurement and design, at least in the UK anyway. Why do they do that? I suspect it’s because they know that it’s really service that sells. 

The cost of a medium specification standard sized cabinet must be benchmarked and cost pretty much the same to every one of the kitchen fitting companies. There’s little differentiation to be had in making cheaper cabinets. Likewise, I suspect that people aren’t going to be willing to pay much more for a cabinet with “additional features”, but the difference in the cost of doors is huge.

Where the differentiation occurs is in the service:

Can I trust this company with my installation?
Is the price reasonable?
Are they flexible?
Do they understand my “special” requirement?
Do they understand what I like?

Summarising

It’s just an analogy, but I find analogies helpful because they help me to see something from different angle and then to see if that different viewpoint also applies to the thing I’m trying to understand.

Header Image: This is the kitchen at Cragside, or more specifically, this is a very small section of the kitchen at Cragside.

One thought on “Product Management and the Kitchen Analogy”

  1. I remember talking about this analogy in the office ages ago. I must re-use it to explain that standard doesn’t mean the result is the same for everyone

    Like

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