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BUS REPORT Summer 2012

Commitment to Continuous Improvement Starts with Communication

Thomas Built Buses Saf-T-Liner(R) C2

Participants in a recent Thomas Built Buses focus group completed a 360° review of the Saf-T-Liner® C2. They looked underneath it, inside of it and around it. No product-related topic was off limits. Focus groups are just one of the ways the company is engaging with and listening to its customers.

A commitment to continuous improvement and leading the industry through innovation are cornerstones of the Thomas Built Buses culture. Feedback from a recent Saf-T-Liner® C2 focus group made it even more apparent to Ed Swaim, Thomas Built C2 product manager, and Ken Frazier, market development manager, that communication is an essential component of continuous improvement.

Focus groups are a time-honored approach to gathering feedback about products. This unstructured, informal research tool encourages candor and typically delivers substantive results.

Thomas Built Buses' five regional sales managers recommended focus group participants to ensure a cross section of school bus industry professionals – customers and non-customers – from different climates, with small fleets and large. Fourteen participants were flown to company headquarters from all over the U.S. and Canada.

The C2 focus group on February 28 at the Thomas Built Buses C2 manufacturing plant in High Point, N.C., was the company's second, following a focus group on the Saf-T-Liner® EF last spring that resulted in product improvements and the introduction of the Saf-T-Liner® EFX last fall.

"This time, participants told us that focus groups are a great first step," said Frazier. "But they want to see more communication: surveys, forums, customer visits to the production plant. They want to know everything we're doing, every improvement we make, as we make it. We heard the word ‘communication' over and over."

There were only a few Thomas Built Buses representatives and one Freightliner Custom Chassis engineer in the room. No dealers. It was just Swaim and Frazier, a body engineer, a chassis engineer, a scribe and the participants.

"It was a very intense couple of days. We picked up the participants at the hotel in a C2. Then we spent hours talking, starting at dinner the first evening, and from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. the next day. We were very open and honest and the participants didn't hold back, either."

The focus group was held in a training room across from the acceptance bay in the C2 plant. "We even put a bus on a lift so they could look at the underside," says Swaim. "We just picked a bus at random, fresh off the production line." The star of the show was a spanking new Saf-T-Liner C2 with a Cummins ISB engine.

Thomas Built spent years planning the C2, a school bus so innovative the company built a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility to produce it. As soon as it was in customers' hands, Thomas Built began soliciting feedback about what the industry liked and what could be improved.

"Over the years we've surveyed and talked directly with customers using our buses and, based on what we heard, we've made more than 100 adjustments and updates to the C2 since it was introduced. However, this was the first focus group that addressed the C2 bumper to bumper — body, chassis, everything — since the product launch in 2004. And the feedback was very interesting." said Swaim.

Focus group participants thought they should have more access to Thomas Built, thought the company should have engineers come to see the problems first-hand. Corrosion was a major issue, especially in the northeast U.S., where the calcium chloride used instead of salt on snowy winter roads destroys anything metal. Focus group participants said: "It's not just Thomas; it's everything we operate: cars, buses, trucks, everything."

Thomas' response to that problem is already in the works, with a corrosion package in development and expected to be available as an option third quarter. And, for areas where gravel is used on wintery roads, Thomas also will be offering a stone guard product.

David Walton, administrative coordinator of vehicle services for Prince William County Schools (PWCS) in Va., was one of the 14 event participants. The 875 bus PWCS fleet includes a mix of Type A, C and D buses. Walton started adding C2s to the PWCS fleet in 2007 and has provided periodic feedback to the company over the years. However, this was the first time he had participated in a focus group.

Walton appreciated the opportunity for candid conversation. He noted that the Thomas Built employees in the group took each piece of feedback seriously and showed a genuine interest in listening. "It was clear from the facilitator's behavior that Thomas Built is sincere in wanting to know what we think. They really listened to what we had to say. They didn't try to justify, explain or minimize any issues the participants brought up. They took it all to heart.

"I went in to the focus group thinking I was a valued customer and I came out knowing it," added Walton.

"We recorded every comment by every participant, and we will review these internally to develop responses to each. We'll let customers know we heard them, whether we've already taken care of the problem, or whether a solution is in process. And if not, why not. By the time you're reading this newsletter, every participant will have heard from us. This was very, very useful. I can't wait to do it again," said Frazier.

The company is committed to holding two focus groups a year in the future, each focused on a different product. Having just done focus groups on the EFX and C2, it's likely the Minotour® or Saf-T-Liner® HDX will be next, and that every product will be discussed in a focus group at least every other year. Please contact your Thomas Built Buses dealer if you'd like to participate in upcoming groups.