Adopt the Genchi Genbutsu approach

Culture  Leadership
06 May, 2019

“Go and see for yourself” reveals a truer picture and helps leaders to make better decisions.

As a company, we have been known for bring differentiated new products to the market. Fostering an innovation culture is critical to enable us. So, how can we become better at delighting consumers with unique, affordable, high-quality products? How do we make sure that consumers are at the forefront of everything that we do?

As companies grow larger and more complex, decision-making tend to happen in meeting rooms and boardrooms – rather than in the trenches. This creates a distance between the problem at hand and its proposed solution. When knowledge passes through various levels of the organisation, the translation loss can be immense.

Genchi Genbutsu addresses this critical gap. It is a Japanese phrase that can be summed up as “go and see for yourself”. Essentially, it means going to the place where things are happening and experiencing them for yourself.

This week, my message focuses on how Genchi Genbutsu can help leaders optimise decision-making, connect with customers, and improve employee engagement.

iSixSigma explains Genchi Genbutsu in a nutshell:

The idea…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decisions need to be based on first-hand knowledge, not the understanding of another person which might be biased, outdated or incorrect.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.

The Japanese word “Gemba” (the relevant place) is also closely related to Genchi Genbutsu. Leaders need to go to the relevant place to observe the relevant things, in order to make the right decision. Being on the spot, at the centre of the action, is crucial to solving problems and identifying opportunities.

What are the benefits?

Genchi Genbutsu is more a frame of mind than a plan of action, as noted in The Economist, and it offers a number of advantages:

  • You get the whole story instead of just a part of it, gaining valuable pieces that may be lost as information travels up the corporate ladder.
  • Witnessing an operational problem first hand sticks with you.
  • It enables you to get to the root cause, rather than addressing superficial symptoms.
  • It helps leaders engage with employees, deepening connections across the organisation.
  • Direct experience of the challenges faced by employees/customers increases empathy.
  • Observation becomes a daily reality – not a special event. Along with learning, leaders can also teach and empower people on the floor or at the frontlines.
  • It allows you to consistently identify and address “hidden” inefficiencies. 

What does it look like in action?

The most well-known practitioner of Genchi Genbutsu is Toyota. The Japanese principle is a pillar of the Toyota Way, the company’s core management philosophy, and has formed an integral part of their leadership training programmes for decades.

In Genchi Genbutsu and why ‘seeing it for yourself’ lets leaders make better decisions, the author gives a great example of this mindset at work. In the early 2000s, Yuji Yokoya, a Toyota engineer, was put in charge of redesigning the Sienna minivan for North America. The company had plenty of existing data and analytics on their customers, driving conditions, etc. Yokoya studied this information, and visited production plants and showrooms. Then, he took a more hands-on approach: he got into a Sienna minivan and drove from Alaska to Mexico and from Florida to California, logging a total of more than 53,000 miles.

Witnessing an operational problem firsthand sticks with you – whereas if you only encounter it in the form of data and analytics, it can be forgettable.

Over the course of his journey, Yokoya identified key areas of improvement in the vehicle: in New Mexico’s narrow streets, he felt the need for a tighter turning radius. On Alaska’s gravel roads, he noted excessive steering drift. As he crossed the Mississippi River via bridge, he experienced stability issues. Being on the road for long periods also made him realise the minivan needed more interior space and kid-friendly features.

These crucial learnings went on to shape the new Sienna model. When the minivan was released in 2004, its customer-centric improvements made it a massive hit – with sales up 60% from the same time in 2003.

How to practice Genchi Genbutsu

Here are some insights to help you get out of your office and experience processes and problems first hand:

1. Look for the facts

The founder of Toyota, Taiichi Ohno, drew a distinction between “data” and “facts”. Data, which refers to numbers and analytics that you see on paper or on a computer screen, is crucial – but it isn’t a substitute for facts, which means the reality you experience for yourself. In Ohno’s words: ‘Data’ is of course important in manufacturing, but I place the greatest emphasis on ‘facts’.

The advice holds good even beyond manufacturing. When William Bratton became chief of New York’s transit police force, he realised that the city’s subways were an overlooked area. The senior officers, none of whom used this mode of transport, remained indifferent to the widespread safety concerns among commuters – because data showed that only 3% of major crimes were committed in the subway.

To address this disconnect, Bratton made it mandatory for senior staff to ride the subway to work, to meetings and at night. The officers quickly experienced the prevailing sense of fear and disorder for themselves, leading to a significant change in the way subways were policed.

2. Walk in your customers’/employees’ shoes

In Lean Leadership: Go and See for Yourself, Annette Franz offers suggestions for leaders to connect with the experiences of customers as well as employees:

  • Reverse mentoring: senior leaders learn and understand the roles and tasks of their team members.
  • Doing the job: assign executives to take on a different role within the organization once a month to experience the jobs their employees do.
  • Customer immersion programmes: 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.
  • Mystery shopping: 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.

Could you implement some of these ideas to achieve better “on the ground” leadership? Reverse mentoring or mystery shopping, for example, are simple ways to get started.

3. Circles of observation

Taiichi Ohno developed the following exercise for his students: he would draw a circle on the factory floor and ask the person to stay in it and observe for 30 minutes. If, at the end of that time, the person had no suggestions for improvement, he would ask them to repeat the exercise.

As Kevin Meyer explains in his book, The Simple Leader: Personal and Professional Leadership at the Nexus of Lean and Zen:

The Ohno Circle exercise is very powerful and can be used on the factory floor, in the finance department, or even at home with the kids. In fact, it’s probably even more powerful in areas where processes are not visible or visibly defined. Just stand and watch. Resist the temptation to immediately jump into action. Think about and record what you’ve observed. Then improve it.

4. Be curious

A key tenet of Genchi Genbutsu is curiosity. As a leader, when you’re interacting with employees on the floor, make it a point to ask questions and listen actively to the answers. The insights you get are crucial to better decision-making. Don’t walk in with your mind already made up – the aim is to lead with the situation, not the solution. By asking genuine questions, you also stimulate further analysis and exploration in people around you.

In Genchi Genbutsu: Where Theory Meets Pavement, Daniel Lilley recommends that you ask, not tell:

Employing Socratic methods allows you to delve below the surface.

  • Is there a better way?
  • How does the customer use it?
  • What bothers you? 

5. Use IOTA for continual improvement

In the article mentioned above, Lilley lays out the IOTA process to enable rapid hypothesis testing:

  • Identify: Find the location (actual place) and the source (actual thing) which is the product or event
  • Observe: Gather facts by spending significant time noting the obvious and insignificant
  • Think: Look for repeating events and correlations
  • Analyze: Ask people at the Gemba why they do some things and not others. Suggest solutions and get feedback. Repeat from Step 2

So, what’s your Genchi Genbutsu approach going to be this week?


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