Copyright 2016, Sarah Hartwell

Strange as it may seem, this is based on a customer comment received by a vehicle manufacturer and on the ensuing investigation.

Frank Arbuthnot was a small trader and like most small traders he used a van to ferry goods from A to B. Unlike many small traders, Frank Arbuthnot took his cat with him on delivery runs. It was a bit like a small tradesman’s version of Postman Pat and his black and white cat, Jess, except Frank’s cat was a medium size tabby cat called Chloe. Chloe liked to ride in the open glove-box with her front paws dangling over the open glove-box door. When Frank was delivering goods around town, Chloe was a familiar and favourite sight with his customers and with local children. Since everyone knew Frank, and many hired him to do removals jobs, the children all knew him and his van as “Frank-and-Chloe” and liked to reach in the window to give Chloe some fuss.

Tradesmen’s vans eventually wear out, and Frank decided to buy a new one. It was a bit of a shock with the voice-activated radio and the Bluetooth phone connection and the other mod cons, but in general Frank liked it …. apart from one problem – the glovebox. To fit all the other mod cons into the dashboard, the glovebox was smaller. Maybe the designers thought the other storage pockets made up for it, but they’d obviously never considered the need to accommodate tradesmen’s cats. So when Frank got the customer satisfaction questionnaire, he added the comment that “the glovebox is too small to fit my cat in,” and ticked the box for “No thanks, please don’t contact me,” and left it at that.

The company that made the van take their customer comments very seriously, so when they received the comment “the glovebox is too small to fit my cat in” they treated it like any other complaint. Firstly, because they were an overseas company, they translated the comment from English to their native language several times to see if “cat” had any meanings they weren’t aware of. However they tried, it still stubbornly translated as the local word for a small furry domestic quadruped that purred and caught mice.

Having ascertained that the customer (whose name they would never know due to privacy rules) really did have a problem fitting his small furry domestic quadruped into his glovebox, it was company policy to thoroughly investigate the problem using the company standard problem-solving methodology. Mr Osman was assigned to form a team to define the problem. So he and several colleagues wrote a Powerpoint presentation with drawings showing that the glovebox was too small for the cat. To do this they had to identify the sizes of cat commonly available in all markets where there vehicle was sold. This got turned into a graph of feline size statistics. Then they had to decide on a benchmark cat – the cat that would be used in future modelling of glovebox dimensions. The cat had to be a bit larger than average (to give room for error) and the sort of cat that wouldn’t mind travelling in the glovebox of a delivery van. They settled on the Maine Coon as their representative benchmark cat. This exercise took about 3 months and involved some very odd emails to cat breeders about the propensity of their cats to travel in vehicle gloveboxes.

Next they had to define the average size of the Maine Coon. This was accomplished by sending out questions to breeders in countries where the van was sold. Everything had to be considered – body length, tail length, limb length and how tall the ears were, including space for the ear tufts at the tip. Then, of course, came the question of how much weight the glovebox door could support when open. Could it support the weight of an average Maine Coon cat? How about the weight of a heavier-than-average Maine Coon cat whose van driving owner indulged it with snacks during the journey? To do all this they needed a team of people with product knowledge – not just knowledge about van gloveboxes, but also those with in-depth knowledge about cats. How often did cats ride in gloveboxes? Should the cat-sized glovebox be a standard or optional feature? An email questionnaire was sent out to every company employee asking that cat-owning employees should provide details about how often they travelled with their cat in the glovebox. During this exercise, Mr Osman’s team learned an awful lot about cats.

Having identified the reason for a cat/glovebox mismatch, and modelled it in CAD and mathematical packages, the team decided it was a minority market and should therefore become an optional feature that a driver could request when ordering the van. But what about all the vans already on the road with dimensionally deficient, feline-unfriendly gloveboxes? This was passed to the design team. Could they create an interim solution that a driver could request from the dealer when he took his van for its service? Many interim solutions were considered, including removing the whole dashboard and fitting a new one with a larger glovebox. The new larger glovebox would be available to cat-owning van-drivers and to those who simply wanted a bigger glovebox. But this caused a problem – the new larger glovebox would hit the passenger’s knees. That meant cutting into the bulkhead between the cab and engine bay to create more room. This would increase the amount of noise in the cab and, of course, in the glovebox, rendering it unsuitable for a cat. That meant reshaping the bulkhead so it had a recess into which noise-insulation and the new, larger glovebox could fit. This meant involving a cross-functional team comprising interior-trim designers to metal-stamping designers, and it meant re-routing part of a wiring loom which involved the electrical team and it had to be tested for safety in the event of side, rear or front impacts. How, for example, would a passenger airbag be fitted?

Finally, the team decided the only economical solution was to wait until the next model came out, and to put a sticker on all gloveboxes of the current model saying “unsuitable for cats.” Their analysis of data showed that the market for dash-mounted cat-boxes was, in fact, very small (and possibly a market of one real person plus a number of employees who thought it was a joke and filled in the survey with fake travelling-cat information).

After nearly 8 months, the team presented the design solution to the management so a decision could be made about introducing cat-friendly gloveboxes into the next model of van. The management escalated this to the senior decision-makers who demanded costings and referred the matter to Mrs Kovic to collate the cost of materials and tooling to make and fit the new design of glovebox. Mrs Kovic pulled together a team who spoke to the manufacturing plants and the materials purchasers and put together an Excel spreadsheet and a Powerpoint presentation to show to management. For this, they had done cost predictions of three different solutions, ranging from the most basic to the most elegant.

The problems was batted back and forth between several departments and considered in numerous meetings involving everyone from designers to prototypers, and cost-benefit analysts to senior managers. When the design of the new model was being finalised, it was considered for inclusion, but finally rejected on the very sensible grounds of “Good grief! How many people travel with cats in their gloveboxes?” to which the answer appeared to be “Thirty-four, plus assorted other small furry domestic quadrupeds such as house-rabbits and Chihuahua dogs. And a canary.” Having decided that gloveboxes were not the safest ways to transport such creatures and that most drivers, if accompanied by such, would use a proprietary pet carrier as available from all good pet stores and vet clinics, the decision-makers decided not to approve the proposed redesigned pet-friendly glovebox. This did not unduly disappoint the team who had worked on the project, because the last 8 months had been an interesting, if rather perplexing, period in which they had measured and weighed cats and analysed which were the most popular cats in each target market, not to mention the “moggy problem.” Having interrogated sufficient websites to discover that “moggy” meant any non-pedigree cat, they also discovered there was no such thing as a benchmark moggy because moggies stubbornly refused to be standardised.

As for the cause of all this fuss, the tabby cat Chloe (who, incidentally, was of the non-standard moggy persuasion), Frank simply secured a cat-sized box to the passenger seat (which he only ever used for putting paperwork on) so that Chloe could lounge in comfort and he could put his delivery paperwork on top of the Chloe-box.