• George Oliver

Columbus's Eggs and the popularity of manual gearboxes

Rory Sutherland was riffing on the subject of Columbus’s Eggs.

His new year Spectator column had posed the question of whether there was a word for brilliant ideas and discoveries that seem simple or obvious after the fact. This often relates to, for example, developments in technology.

He discovered ‘Columbus’s Eggs’. My word count precludes explanation as to why. You’ll have to Google it.

But it led me to thinking about the counter-example cited by Sutherland - an expert in consumer behaviour and trends - in his column.

That was why manual gears remain popular among UK drivers despite sharing a market with the ‘Columbus’s Egg’ of automatic transmission.

One of the things I like about Sutherland is that he takes a long, often counterintuitive, view about why perceptions form and become consumer preferences or even norms.

It also got me thinking about the use of the 5 Whys approach (or similar) in getting back to the source from which such customer decision-making derives. Getting to the crux of an issue seems a valuable approach to problem solving.

Japanese industrialist Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Industries, developed the 5 Whys technique in the 1930s. It supports decision-making based on deep understanding of what's actually happening (usually on the shop floor) rather than on what is perceived to be happening (usually in the boardroom).

It’s a simple enough approach: when a problem needs solving, you drill down to its root cause by asking "Why?" five times. Then, when a counter-measure becomes apparent, you follow it through to prevent the issue from recurring.

So why are manual gearboxes still preferred by so many UK motorists? As ever, Sutherland’s theory is worth quoting in full as he theorised on source:

“The reason Britons venerate manual transmission is largely because our cars were so weedy in the 1950s that it was essential (early Morris Minors managed 0-60 mph in 52 seconds).

“We made a virtue of necessity, and started burbling on about how manual transmission ‘gives you a sense of control’. Yet few people who have owned an automatic ever go back.”

UK drivers, manual gears, marketing and the power of nostalgia. The omelette to Columbus’s Egg.

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