Case study 94 thompson toys

Thompson Toys manufactures a range of simple toys for pre-school-age children. The toys are robust, colourful and fun to play with, but also take account of sound educational principles - in toy industry parlance, they have high play value. The company has proved successful, exporting toys throughout Europe and Australia, and acquiring in the process a reputation for quality and durability which has stood them in good stead.

Harry Thompson, the founder of the firm, read in the trade press about the Fisher-Price company's crèche in Chicago. At one time, Fisher-Price ran a free crèche at its headquarters where pre-school children were given the company's toys to play with; observers, behind two-way mirrors, observed how the children played with the toys and which toys were most popular. This had proved invaluable for Fisher-Price when developing and marketing new products.

After reading the article, Harry Thompson decided to set up a similar crèche of his own. The crèche would be free for the children of the company's staff, so Harry let his personnel manager work out the details of setting up the project. Initially the crèche had seven children in it, of ages ranging from one year old to four and a half. The crèche was staffed by a fully trained nursery nurse; two observers were hired, and a room fitted out for the purpose. The main difference between Thompson's crèche and the Fisher-Price one was that Thompson used closed-circuit TV to monitor the children rather than two-way mirrors. This not only turned out to be cheaper, but also allowed the observers to record the children's behaviour for later analysis. A further spin-off of CCTV was that it allowed the observers to take breaks or spend time preparing their reports.

The observers either directly observed or recorded all the children's activities throughout the day, in particular observing their approach to playing with the toys.

Although the costs of running the crèche were high, Thompson thought it worthwhile in terms of new product development; several potentially damaging design problems in toys turned up, and some toys which had seemed promising on the drawing board turned out to be duds with the children. This alone saved the company a fortune in launch costs. The crèche took almost six months to settle down, however, and the researchers detected a number of problems with the set-up.

First, there was a conflict of interest between the nursery nurse's professional training and the needs of the observers. She needed to exercise a degree of control over the children's play, both for educational and nurturing reasons, and also for housekeeping reasons - for example, stopping play when it was time for the children's lunch. The observers, on the other hand, wanted the children to play as freely as possible with the toys. They wanted to observe whether the children spontaneously shared toys with each other, at what point the children became bored with the toys and what happened if another child tried to take a toy away. Also, the nursery nurse was not comfortable about the children playing with prototypes, because she was concerned about the chances of injury from toys that had not yet undergone full safety testing.

Second, the children belonged to the Thompson staff. This meant that most of them were already familiar with the majority of Thompson toys, since staff were allowed to buy toys for their children at very substantial discounts. The observers felt that this might bias the results.

Third, the observers were obtaining so much data from the observations and video tapes that it became impossible to analyse all of them. Choosing which areas should be analysed thoroughly was becoming a nightmare and the observers were reluctant to perform superficial analysis on such rich data.

Finally, the researchers were not confident that good results could be obtained from such a small sample of children.

Despite these difficulties, Harry Thompson still wanted to proceed with the crèche; already, some very useful feedback had been generated and he had high hopes for the future running of the crèche once the initial teething troubles had been overcome. The benefits were already outweighing the difficulties - but all concerned with the project knew that even better results could be obtained.

(Case contributed by Jim Blythe)

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