Jobs-to-be-Done Philosophy: A Practical Application for Product Innovators

Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) philosophy is built on the metaphor that “A customer hires a product to accomplish a job.” It helps innovators to see customer needs more accurately by going beyond what a customer is buying (brands, products, technologies) to why they are buying it (their JTBD). Customer research without JTBD can often by myopic, resulting in bad decisions.

When Voice of the Customer Goes Wrong

When I was in product management at John Deere, there was a VoC project focused around “understanding customer needs for lawn tractors.” A major theme that emerged was the desire for “a smaller turning radius.” This was understandable, as this was a traditional common parameter to compare lawn tractors. Deere focused its innovation to reduce the turning radius as much as possible within the lawn tractor frame.

The result was truly an engineering marvel. A new tractor was christened the “Spin-Steer.” It could pivot on a dime, fulfilling the customer’s literal request. Even though it was cool, and even though it was supported with massive advertising and massive dealer orders, it was a colossal failure.

What went wrong? Without a doubt, the product addressed the stated customer requirements. The problem was the focus was too much about the product itself. The initiative was focused on what customers asked for, instead of why they asked for it. And this is precisely the challenge that jobs-to-be-done fixes.

What is a “job-to-be-done”?

A job-to-be-done is a customer’s goal, objective, or problem to be solved. We say that “a customer hires a product to help them accomplish a job.” This metaphor gives a proper perspective as to what customers really think about products in that… they don’t think about them that much. They don’t really care about the products per se. They also don’t care about brands or customer relationships either.

They only care about the reason they sought the product to begin with.

Better VoC with Jobs-to-be-done

How could the previous John Deere error have been avoided with jobs-to-be-done? Instead of using the product as the unit of analysis (the thing they were buying), they should have used the customer’s job as the unit of analysis (the reason they were buying it).

It likely would have been the job of “Mowing the lawn.” From there, the focus of a qualitative interview effort would have focused on uncovering every possible challenge with mowing the lawn. A commonly used scheme is the question set devised by JTBD pioneer Anthony Ulwick, which follows the pattern of:

  • SPEED – What makes mowing the lawn slow ?,
  • STABILITY – What makes mowing the lawn go off track?
  • OUTPUT – What prevents someone from mowing more grass?

As a result, customers can easily provide a list of their challenges they face. I refer to these as “error statements.” However, it’s precisely the same concept that Ulwick described as “outcome statements.” Once the error statements have been gathered from customers, we need to work with customers to prioritize them. This is most commonly done with a survey.

Jobs-to-be-Done Case Study

I was the product manager for Deere’s 2305 compact utility tractor. Therefore, when the time came to replace this popular model, we launched a massive customer research initiative.

The research was done properly, using jobs-to-be-done. We selected “Maintain property with a tractor” as the job to be studied. Going through the process described above, we discovered six error statements: 1) Minimize the time to attach and detach implements; 2) Minimize the likelihood of feeling unsafe on slopes, 3) Minimize the time to access tools, 4) Operate in low light conditions, 5) Store in garages with low door heights, and 6) Minimize the likelihood of discomfort while operating.

With a discrete list of problems to solve, the combined engineering and marketing teams entered an intense season of idea generation, engineering study, and concept testing. And what innovations were created as a result for the tractor models?

Let’s start with “Minimize the time to attach and detach implements.” There’s an old joke in the tractor business, “A tractor without implements and attachments a tractor is just a slow ride to the mailbox.” Implements are the tools that actually get the work done, such as loaders, blades, and backhoes. The 2305’s most common function was mowing. It performed this with a belly mower underneath, just as you see with a lawn tractor. When using their tractors, customers need to detach and attach the belly mower when shifting from one task to another.

It’s easy to see why this was a major issue for customers. To do this operation, the “PTO shaft”, which transmits power from the transmission to the mower deck, had to be manually disconnected and then reconnected when installing/uninstalling the mower. For this, the customer had to lie on the ground, and stretch their hand through a puzzle of grease and dirt covered gearboxes and slide back the shaft collar. Once disconnected, the deck could be pulled out. Next, the customer had to wrestle the several hundred-pound mower deck out from beneath the tractor.

As a result, the engineering team created the Auto-Connect ™ deck. With this innovation, the customer just drives over the deck and the PTO shaft would automatically connect. And then, just after a pin or two is snapped into place, the installation is complete.

Next, recall that customers wanted to “Minimize the likelihood of feeling unsafe on slopes.” To address this, the new tractor was built wider, providing additional stability. Also, the fenders were made taller, helping to enhance a secure feeling.

Customers wanted to “Minimize the time to access tools.” For this, many storage solutions were studied, but the team ultimately went with a simple solution, a bolt-on toolbox.

Next, customers wanted to “Operate in low light conditions.” Again, sophisticated ideas were considered, but the final solution was a comparatively simple: additional standard lights.

Customers wanted to “Store in garages with low door heights.” There was already an “off-the-shelf” solution for this, a foldable ROPS (Roll-Over Protective Structure, more informally a “roll bar.”) However, it was a major cost add. But with the confidence of valid jobs-to-be-done research, the feature was added.

Finally, customers wanted to, “Minimize the likelihood of discomfort while operating.” The solution was again, not technologically complex, but it was a risky decision because of the expense. The fix was a deluxe suspension seat.

Some of these feature additions required a new innovation, such as the AutoConnect ™ mower deck. Others, such as the deluxe suspension seat, weren’t technologically difficult, but were risky decisions because of the additional cost burden. If these decisions were incorrect, a series of bad outcomes would follow, from damaged margins to confused customers.

But with proper jobs-to-be-done analysis and research, these decisions can be confidently made. In the case of this new tractor line, which would be called the John Deere 1-Series, both margins and market share increased, substantially. The result was a historic new product success. Well received by dealers and customers alike, this tractor family is still selling well over ten years later.

The Jobs-to-be-Done Mindset: Innovation is about Subtraction, Not Addition

An old story from the Renaissance reveals why JTBD is so powerful. When Michelangelo unveiled his statue of David in Florence, Pope Julius was in attendance. The Pope was amazed at this masterpiece, as surely all in attendance were. He asked Michelangelo, “How did you create something so perfect?” Michelangelo replied, “I looked at the stone, and I carved away everything that was not David.”

And therein lies the heart of this philosophy. Begin with the customer’s job. The reason they are looking for a solution. Understand their challenges performing the job. And if your new product eliminates those challenges, success is sure to follow.

Innovation is not about adding features. It’s about subtracting problems.


About Scott Burleson

Scott Burleson has a diverse background within manufacturing engineering, product management, voice of the customer training, and SaaS product development. As product manager for John Deere’s premium compact tractors, he built the strategy for the 1-Series tractors, which became one of the most successful launches in Deere’s long history. As Director of the Strategyn Institute, he worked alongside the world’s best JTBD minds, including pioneer Tony Ulwick. Today, Burleson leads software development for The AIM Institute, teaches innovation workshops, and advises corporate leaders and practitioners on growth via JTBD principles. He is the author of Statue in the Stone: Decoding Customer Motivation with the 48 Laws of Jobs-to-be-Done.

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