The basics of making the right product – even if it is just falafels

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Sometimes on a Sunday night, it feels good to post something lighthearted…

Those of you who’ve read my earlier articles would remember how cooking and household chores sometimes become an analogy for project and change management. And why not – each assumes the existence of some objectives, planning, requirements, and the final outcome that delivers expected value.

Today, I was making falafels. As this is a new territory for me, it can be compared to delivering a new product to customers. In each phase of the falafel execution, I could see something in common with the typical phases of product development. Here is my not very serious report. As falafels tends to be less complex than some other products you may be working on, don’t be too critical – you can probably come up with other phases of product development that I skipped for falafels.

falafels

1) Build or buy?
Preliminary research identified some vital knowledge: the best falafels are made of dried and soaked chickpeas, not canned. Due to the overwhelming evidence and detailed scientific explanations related to the specifics of starch breakdown, I decided to trust the industry knowledge. So I did not take the “canned” route and learned how to soak chickpeas – which is so easy that I’m even embarrassed to mention it. You just wash them and soak for 24 hours before cooking.
Creating a product “from scratch” is not necessarily more difficult that using commercially available components. But you will need to do some research, level-headed planning and preparation, and work on your sourcing strategies.

2) Technology base.
Soaked chickpeas need to be ground to a soft consistency with all other ingredients – this is the magic part where the starches break down and the falafel ball holds itself together. To do this, my recipe calls for a high-power food processor.
I tried my little puny food processor as part of the experiment and gave up. Not enough power. The big and loud blender did a better job, but I had to process in batches and do a lot of mixing of the layers with a big wooden fork. It was a slow process. A few errant peas escaped grinding and had to be removed by fork. So if I really want to become a pro falafel-maker, I might need to invest in a new appliance… Not sure how long would it take to break even on that?
Be realistic about the technology (equipment, systems) that the new product will require. Do not assume that you will be able to “wing it”. Cost/benefit analysis must be done. You may have to invest in a new technology or end up making an inferior product with what you have. Or, if new technology is costs prohibitive, you may need a different solution, or a different product.

3) The process quality.
The errant peas that escaped from the blender unscathed – they are my defects… The first experiment has shown me the weak points in the process. If I want to make this product regularly, I should measure my defect rate as the technology is tweaked, and work on reducing the deviations in the manufacturing process. Or, perhaps, these defects point out that my technology base is insufficient. At the same time, I need to come up with a better way to get the unbroken peas out, not by digging them out with a fork, at least until my technology base in enhanced or I have a better engineering solution for grinding the peas…
Expect defects in any new process. Learn to detect, measure and analyze the ways to reduce the defect rate. Defect management will be an integral part of your new product. And if you did not find any defects, then maybe you weren’t looking?

4) The minimum viable product.
The secret of the taste of a falafel is in the herbs. They must be fragrant and fresh. Parsley and cilantro give the home-made falafel the flavour and a green tint (which you will hardly find in the frozen-food version from a store). The recipe called for A LOT of herbs, and at first I thought – really? Isn’s that an overkill? That’s a lot of greens. However, I followed the recipe and added the right amounts of everything – cilantro, parsley, garlic, cumin and coriander. The resulting flavour was fantastic, so the herbs were not just a nice-to-have.
While you may experiment with some product features, you need to decide what is non-negotiable and mandatory for a minimum viable and good quality product. If your first products are seriously lacking in an important feature (such as flavour), you may irreparably damage your product’s reputation. In my case, my kids may decide that they hate falafels and will never want to try one again.

5) The solution.
There are two main cooking methods – baking (healthier) and frying (crunchier and softer inside). I research these solution options extensively. I read about pros and cons. The healthier option, of course! But how much healthier is it, really? I can’t decide which one to go with. In the end, I divide the falafel mix into halves and conduct an experiment. Half of the falafels goes into the oven, and the other half – into the frying pan. We will do a blind test at dinner.
You may need to conduct a pilot or build a proof of concept before choosing the optimal solution. With all the design considerations and customer expectations, the number of variables may be so high that a theoretical exercise will not help you make the right decision. You may just have to try it out.

6) User acceptance testing.
I announce the tasting and request that every family member tastes from each bowl and makes a choice. Confession – I’ve already tried both and know which one I prefer, but I stay silent to keep the experiment pure. The resulting votes go overwhelmingly towards the less healthy – fried option. I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps there is some other secret to baking falafels that I have not discovered, but the fried ones are crunchy on the outside, soft on inside, and retained more flavour. A definite winner of the customer votes.
The success of the product depends on your customers. Regardless of what you believe the product’s benefits and winning features are, your customers will decide. So when designing a product, build a customer feedback mechanism and keep measuring customer satisfaction. Otherwise, you may end up with unsold products on your hands – just like I will have to eat the baked falafels as I am feeling sorry for them.

Please share your thoughts!