The headline, a famous quotation from the movie “Field of Dreams,” may be true for a baseball diamond set in a remote corner of Iowa.
But for agricultural tillage, planting, and spraying equipment, if you build it, they definitely will not come?— unless you’ve tested and tested and tested that equipment first. And that’s where Patti Venner comes in.
“In our line of work, it’s all about testing and making sure we deliver the best product possible to the customer,” says Venner, an 18-year Deere veteran who is the company’s PV&V Manager for the Crop Care Platform.
Venner is standing at the edge of a large field near Cordova, Illinois, where she and her team have assembled for a test. The sound of a tractor pulling a prototype planter rumbles across the field. Whether she’s working here or with the other teams she manages around the globe, her chief goal is to ensure Deere’s core values of quality and innovation are evident in every machine the company produces.
How an Idea Takes Root
“One of my favorite parts of the job is working with our customers,” Venner says. “By interacting directly with customers and our marketing groups, we can find out farmers’ pain points?— the problems they need to overcome to be more efficient and profitable.”
For example, Venner explains, one of the big challenges facing farmers is a short planting window. To have the best results at harvest time, farmers must plant their crops at a specific time of year, which sometimes can be as brief as one week.
Farmers need a planter that can get through a field as fast as possible while maintaining precise seed placement.
Exactly how Deere meets a particular customer need is a competitive secret, but the process isn’t.
“Our design group starts with an idea, or concept,” Venner says, “and the PV&V group is responsible for testing that concept.”
Her education and experience definitely help when deciding how to test a solution. Successful testers possess a range of skills, but the chief one may be understanding how things work. Venner, whose degree is in mechanical engineering, understands. She even designed products before she started testing them.
“I was in design for about 13 years and also spent some time in quality,” she says. “I understand what it takes to develop and deliver a high-quality product to our customers.”
Knowing how to design a product as well as how to test it has made Venner’s move into a full?time PV&V role a natural step.
“I love the design side of things,” Venner says, “and I have really enjoyed the test side, too. My team and I are really passionate about developing tests that will stress a product and ensure that it’s good enough to bear the John Deere name.”
Finding the Right Tool for the Job
Venner says the most affordable way to test new product concepts is with the help of computer-generated modeling software. The increasingly sophisticated software can run rigorous analysis on our concepts, she notes, without running up huge costs by building physical machines.
If the available tools don’t give Venner what she needs to test a concept, she looks for something new.
That can mean going outside her immediate Crop Care organization to see what the other John Deere product lines are using. Venner may even go outside the company?— to the automotive industry, for example?— to benchmark a certain technology. She is constantly searching for the most efficient way to test things.
Seeking a Balance
Customers are the ultimate judges of product quality, of course, but there are competing interests. For example, some customers might wish products would cost next to nothing and last forever. But at the same time, John Deere would like to make great products and enough profit to reward employees and investors, so Venner has to consider many audiences.
“Testers have to understand what the customers need,” she says, “not just today, but five years from today. Which functions are essential? What crops and conditions will they be running in? How will the machine be used in the field? How long will it be expected to last? Do our competitors have similar products and how do they compare?” And so on.
“We’re really taking input from the John Deere product designers, customer support representatives, marketing, and quality organizations to understand what the goals are,” Venner says. “We set those goals at the very beginning of a program, and then it’s our responsibility to test the products and report on where we are with respect to the goals.”
Gaining Approval, Step-By-Step
If a concept passes the early testing phases, then the product development team will build a prototype machine and John Deere technicians and test engineers will put it through its paces in an actual work environment.
“At each stage, we’re removing the bugs and refining the concept,” Venner says. “For example, if we do find a problem?— let’s say something breaks?— the organization will identify what we call the ‘root cause of a failure.’ We can say, ‘It failed, this is the reason it failed, and here are the different options for fixing it,’ so by the time we take it to our ‘cooperators,’ we know we’ve got a viable solution.”
Cooperators are farmers who have agreed to test experimental Deere products. They’re the test drivers, so to speak, who will use the new products on their own farms, in real production environments, and then report back to John Deere with criticisms, suggestions, and often even praise for the solution.
“The fact that we test our experimental equipment with our customers means we get direct feedback about it,” says Venner, who occasionally rides in the cab with a cooperator. “They feel very comfortable sharing their insights. The ride-along is a really great chance to see our equipment in action and to view it through the eyes of a customer. It’s an opportunity that not every employee gets to experience.”
Once Venner’s group has made further refinements based on feedback from customers and testing, the product development team sends those products into production. From there, they get rolled out to John Deere dealers.
Venner plays an important role in a process that takes an idea, tests it, refines it, and eventually puts it into production. This can turn an ordinary drive through the country into a real-life display of her career highlights.
“Nothing makes me more proud than driving past a field and excitedly telling my kids that a farmer is using a piece of equipment that I helped put into production,” Venner says. “It’s my favorite part of the job?— seeing the products and innovations that we’re delivering to customers.”
If Deere builds it?— and Patti Venner and her teams approve it?— customers will come.