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Focus on the Customer: Gary Gray: As vice president of product management for Polaris Industries, Gary Gray leads the development of new motorcycles for the company's Indian Motorcycle and Slingshot brands.

I started my career by getting my undergraduate degree in engineering at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. My goal was automotive or vehicle design. I've always believed in practicing whatever you are studying, so I did a number of internships. One of these expanded into the school year, and I ended up working and going to school at the same time. The interplay really helped structure my learning.

After college, I started working at Polaris in manufacturing. I got the job at Polaris because of all the Lean work 1 had done in my internships. I was the company's first Lean engineer. In 1996, the company started a motorcycle division. I was on the design team, and our mission was to build the first Victory Motorcycle, which was a cruiser. I was really into motorcycles, but I didn't understand cruisers; they were slow and heavy, and they didn't stop very well, and they didn't turn very well, either. I decided that if I was going to design one of these things, I needed to understand the people who rode them. What makes a cruiser rider a cruiser rider? Why do they like these bikes as much as they do?

I ended up spending a lot of time at motorcycle rallies. The first couple of times I went, I was not getting it. I was riding fast and doing hard cornering, and everybody else was going really slowly and looking at the scenery. After my third or fourth event, it clicked: "Slow down, enjoy the ride. Enjoy the camaraderie." Cruiser cyclists are not about going fast or cornering hard. They're about taking in the scenery, and these bikes are really, really good for that. They're easy to ride, they're comfortable, and they're very manageable. I learned that you can't design something if you don't get out in the world and understand how it's going to be used.

In 2009, we started work on the Slingshot, a three-wheeled motorcycle that we created from scratch. There wasn't a product in the marketplace that was like the Slingshot. It is almost like a car with only one back tire. You sit in the motorcycle like you sit in a car, and it's got a steering wheel and pedals and a shifter much like a manual car. It legally qualifies as a motorcycle, and it gives you all the enjoyment of open-air riding--your hair in the wind and the breeze in your face--but with safety amenities that appeal to the customer we were going after--people who were aging out of traditional motorcycles or people who liked the idea of motorcycles but were intimidated by them.

In 2011, we acquired Indian Motorcycle, which had a great heritage and legacy and history. Last summer, I organized a ride with the president of Indian Motorcycles and his leadership team. We went on an 1,800-mile ride together, starting in Minnesota, going through Sturgis, and ending at the Bonneville Salt Flats. We were on the road for five days.

What is the president of a motorcycle company doing away from the office for five days? He's riding bikes to understand what our customers go through. If we had an issue, we experienced it like a customer and asked ourselves, "What would have this been like for one of our customers? What would they have done if they had this situation? How would we have treated them and what would we have said to them on the phone?"

The message is clear to everyone in the company: get embedded with your customer. Go out and be them. If you're working on camping equipment, go camp; if you're working on floor cleaners, go out and spend a week cleaning floors. Whatever it is, you've got to do it if you're going to make great products. Until you embed yourself with the customer and truly understand their unmet needs, you're never going to be a truly great company.

DOI: 10.1080/08956308.2018.1495970

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Publication:Research-Technology Management
Date:Sep 1, 2018
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