Code Name Ginger: The Story behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World

    By: Jeffrey Pinegar on Sep 17, 2013

    Book Review: Code Name Ginger: The Story behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New WorldCode

     By: Steve Kemper. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2003. 319+x pages. $27.95.      

     Code Name Ginger provides an in-depth examination of the new product development process for Segway, the “personal transportation system” formerly known as “Ginger” and “IT.” Kemper was granted unprecedented inside access to Kamen and the Segway product development team for nearly three years, starting with concept development all the way through detailed design. Unfortunately, Kamen kicked Kemper out just as the technical design was nearing completion and as the challenges of manufacturing were heating up. Still,Code Name Ginger presents a true-to-life portrayal of product development and sheds light on the impact that poor management and idiosyncratic behavior can have on a product development team as they skip stages and blow through gates. However, Code Name Ginger is not a reference book; it is a nonfiction business novel alike that product development and Segway enthusiasts will find enjoyable and educational.

    Merle Crawford (Crawford and Di Benedetto, 2003) has taught us that there are three reasons products fail: (1) lack of customer need, (2) failure to meet customer needs if they exist, and (3) poor marketing of the product. The story of Segway is the tale of a product development that excelled at meeting perceived customer's needs. Kamen's engineers designed and redesigned elements of Segway, right down to the helical gearbox with gear ratios selected for performance and for the pleasant audible tones they generate. The marketing of Segway was extraordinary, creating unprecedented market awareness with virtually no advertising budget. Dean Kamen and Segway appeared on virtually every morning program and on 20/20, and took every photo opportunity with the president of the United States. Segway had a cameo appearance on “Ed” (NBC primetime), and an assault team in one of Tom Clancy's Netforce novels used a herd of Segways decked out in stealth shielding. However, although Segway is an elegant solution and is marketed well, it most likely will fail because it was designed for a nonexistent market need, failing to meet the first criterion for success.

    So, do not read Code Name Ginger for another lesson on the value of voice-of-the-customer research; there was no customer research at all. Do not read Code Name Ginger for a lesson on viral marketing; for Segway the viral infection started with Kamen's celebrity and was super heated by his paranoia, a combination difficult to duplicate. Read Code Name Ginger for the lessons that it teaches about the dynamics of a team engaged in the development of a product that they love—a team that succeeded in spite of and, paradoxically because of, their technically genius charismatic leader, Dean Kamen.

    Kamen is a self-made multimillionaire whose company, DEKA, invented the first portable insulin pump, Baxter's HomeChoice dialysis machine, and the iBot, a wheelchair capable of climbing and descending stairs. One day a DEKA employee surfed past Kamen on an iBot proof-of-concept test apparatus consisting of a platform balancing on a single axle, driven by two servomotors and using a joystick for steering. In a flash of inspiration, Kamen saw a new-to-the-world product that he felt could change the world. He fell in love with that concept, which became Segway.

    From the beginning, it is clear that Kamen and the Segway team failed to analyze how the product would meet any market need. If DEKA had a robust phase-gate design process, the Segway project would not have passed into design until the opportunity was analyzed and when a product concept was developed. However, as long as Kamen was in charge, nothing would stop Segway from being developed. Since Kemper lived in Kamen's house for many months and often talked with Kamen late in the evening, he was able to examine Kamen's role in the process and illustrate in detail how his presence affected the project. In particular, three facets of Kamen's personality stand out: (1) He was paranoid that other manufacturers would discover and steal the project; (2) he always had final authority over the direction of the product and refused to relinquish control; and (3) he was the ultimate cheerleader and salesperson.

    Before Segway, DEKA was principally a design house. From the beginning, however, Kamen wanted not only to design Segway but also to manufacture it as well—an aspect with which he was unfamiliar since DEKA only designed products. Wisely, Kamen hired an experienced chief executive officer (CEO), Tim Adams, to manage the company and assigned a highly respected project manager to oversee the design process. Kamen insisted that he would focus his efforts on pleasing his investors; however, he was unable to separate himself from the design process. Kamen's continued involvement in the design process promoted “feature creep” (p. 75), which frustrated and undermined his managers. For example, when a manager vetoed a new idea in order to keep the project on schedule, Kamen often would issue a counter-veto (p. 36). When professional marketers were hired, they became frustrated because Kamen's extreme paranoia prevented any market testing. Ultimately, the marketing manager was fired because he continued to cling to his belief that he needed to talk to customers before he could finalize a marketing plan or even could select a name for the product.

    To Kamen's credit, he recognized that he could not rely on customers to provide specific design direction for Segway. “He liked to say that if you asked people where they would put a third eye, most would say the back of their head. But if you gave them the option of putting it on the end of a finger—he would wave his in illustration—the advantages were instantly clear. Dean had learned long ago that customers didn't always know best. They hadn't thought about the problem deeply enough to envision innovative solutions” (p. 195). This passage reveals perhaps the greatest lessons in the book and explains why Kamen was unconcerned with the lack of market research. Market research that attempts to ask respondents for solutions always will fail to generate innovative solutions, and evidently, this was the only kind of market research Kamen had witnessed. However, customers are the best and only reliable source for identifying market needs, something Kamen failed to realize.

    One of the greatest business myths is that customers did not ask for Post-It™ notes. However, those on the product development team were able to determine that prospective users saw real value in the product, even if they could not articulate that value. Customers usually cannot identify solutions to their problems, nor should they be asked to. But they can and do identify their problems or needs (Havener and Thorpe, 1994). When the first quasi-market research was conducted at DEKA, it revealed customer need issues: “Some riders had also said that their commutes to work were too long for Ginger, or that they preferred to walk for short errands” (p. 227). Rather than taking this research as a warning and investigating further, they continued to move forward. Kemper suggests that Kamen suffered from blind faith in the product and “bends reality to fit his vision” (p. 296). To be sure, it was this blind faith and Kamen's persistence that propelled this project through development.

    Were the details of what happened in the company subsequent to the author's dismissal available, the reader would learn how the product became known as Segway rather than as Ginger or Flywheel. The reader likely also would learn about detailed production and marketing plans and what other politics played into the final production of Segway. Approximately 6,000 Segways had been sold in the first 18 months after launch (information from a product recall), although a plant was built that could produce 40,000 units per year. Undoubtedly, the product has not revolutionized the world, as Kamen suggested it would, nor has it met his expectations. Nevertheless, the insights revealed in this book are valuable not only to managers, marketers, and engineers but also are entertaining for anyone interested in Segway. Code Name Ginger also offers valuable insights from the prospective of various product development disciplines.

    Jeffrey S. Pinegar and Gregory CohenFranklin and Marshall College

    Released: September 17, 2013, 1:37 pm | Updated: September 17, 2013, 1:47 pm
    Keywords: PDMA Blog

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