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Annette Franz

Customer Care

Lean Leadership: Go and See for Yourself

Visit the gemba to gain understanding

Published: Tuesday, August 2, 2016 - 15:41

I recently came across the Japanese terms genchi genbutsu and gemba; they’re both key principles of the Toyota Production System, which comprises Toyota’s management philosophy and best practices. Although they’re (lean) management principles and concepts, they apply not only to the employee experience but also to the customer experience.

Let’s look at some background and definitions first.

Toyota’s website defines genchi genbutsu as “going to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus, and achieve goals.”

According to Wikipedia, genchi genbutsu means “go and see.” It suggests that in order to truly understand a situation, one needs to go to the gemba, or the “real place” where work is done.

According to iSixSigma: “The idea behind genchi genbutsu is that business decisions need to be based on first-hand knowledge, not the understanding of another person, which might be biased, outdated, or incorrect. Problems are best understood and solved where they occur—for example, on the factory floor. Rather than looking at information from a distance—in an office, for example—regarding process issues, managers should go see for themselves what is happening.”

As you read those definitions, I hope you did what I did when I first read them. I nodded my head and thought that these had great application to the world of customer experience. How do you get to the root of the problem, effort, or issue without getting your hands dirty and seeing it for yourself?

Six Sigma Training writes: “If you’re ready to find and eliminate the sources of inefficiency and poor quality that could prove lethal for your business, it’s time to ‘get your boots on’ genchi genbutsu. If boots aren’t your style, genchi genbutsu can also be translated as ‘go and see for yourself.’ According to The Economist,genchi genbutsu represents a fundamental difference between western and Japanese management styles—whereas in the West knowledge is gleaned and digested in the office or the boardroom, in Japan it is gleaned on the factory floor.’ The concept can easily be generalized beyond manufacturing; the essence of genchi genbutsu is simply this: Optimal decision-making requires that you physically go to the relevant place (gemba) to observe the relevant objects (genbutsu) yourself. In fact, the term gemba itself is commonly used instead of genchi genbutsu, because the entirety of this concept is actually captured by the idea of place—being on the spot, at the source of the action, to identify and take advantage of opportunities for improvement.”

As The Economist article states, genchi genbutsu is a frame of mind more than it is an action plan. I like this frame of mind, and it’s one senior management should absolutely adopt. Many compare it to “management by walking around.” You can’t manage or run a business sitting in your ivory tower. You can’t manage or run a business by simply looking at numbers, metrics, data, and reports. You have to go down in the trenches and see the work being done. This isn’t about micro-managing; this is about knowing your business, knowing how things are done, and experiencing firsthand what employees do and experience. (I’ve watched a lot of episodes of Undercover Boss, and it really does baffle me that executives have no idea what their employees do.)

I started to think about some of the things companies can do to move from mindset to action. I think the following apply to both the employee experience and the customer experience.
Customer immersion programs: Executives are embedded into their customers’ lives to gain a better understanding of how they live, work, and do the jobs they need to do. Adobe’s immersion program is well known in the industry.
Ethnography research: Anthropological researchers (you have one or two of these folks in your company, right?) visit customers in their homes or offices and observe how they live, act, and behave. Intel uses this approach.
Management by walking around: Managers wander through the workplace, checking in with employees at random to talk to them about how things are going and what issues they are facing at the moment.
Reverse mentoring: This can be used for a variety of reasons, but one is to help senior leaders learn and understand the roles and tasks of their team members.
Undercover executive programs: You know this one because of the popular show, but your executives can do the same thing: go undercover and do the jobs your employees do so that they can get the real experience without being treated differently.
Doing the job: Some companies assign executives to take on a different role within the organization once a month (not undercover) to experience the jobs their employees do.
Journey mapping: I often write about starting with assumptive maps, but another approach to mapping is to get out there with your customers and do the jobs they are trying to do; capture the steps, the emotions, the desired outcomes, and more.
Double jacking/call monitoring: This is a very specific, tactical example of how to uncover customer-support call issues, or to help others understand both the customer and the employee experience for that type of interaction and role. An employee sits with a customer service rep and listens to customer calls.
Mystery shopping: Shop your own organization; you don’t have to be a retail operation to do this. “Shopping” can be calling your customer support line or your reception/main office line. Shopping can take many forms, and it allows you to experience the organization as customers would.

As you’re undertaking these exercises, remember that there are different employee and customer types. People are different, and so their experiences are, too. For example, you can’t forget that the experience for a disabled customer or employee, e.g., perhaps in a wheelchair, will be completely different from the customer or employee who is not disabled. Experience it all.

If you want to put a label or category on each of these exercises, I'd simply call them “Walking in Your Customers’ (or Employees’) Shoes.” In reality, they are all different ways of doing the same thing and getting to the same outcomes: developing empathy, clarity, understanding, and awareness; understanding jobs to be done and how those are going; learning; identifying issues (effort, efficiency, effectiveness) and root causes; helping others; developing appreciation for what they are doing or trying to do; and more.

With that information, with that knowledge, leaders can formulate improvement plans and then execute.

Go to the place where it all happens. Go and see for yourself. It will be time well spent.

You can observe a lot by just watching.
—Yogi Berra


About The Author

Annette Franz’s picture

Annette Franz

Annette Franz, CCXP is founder and CEO of CX Journey Inc. She’s got 25 years of experience in both helping companies understand their employees and customers and identifying what drives retention, satisfaction, engagement, and the overall experience – so that, together, we can design a better experience for all constituents. She's an author (she wrote the book on customer understanding!), a speaker, and a customer experience thought leader and influencer. She serves as Vice Chairwoman on the Board of Directors of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA), is an official member of the Forbes Coaches Council, and is an Advisory Board member for CX@Rutgers.


Great article, japanesse are

Great article, japanesse are best in class in quality & productivity matters. I had the privilege to be trainned in those matters in Japan, some years ago.


F. Ruben Collao