First Face of Innovation: Go to Gemba

By Jon Miller Published on April 10th, 2006

I’m reading The Ten Faces of Innovation by Tom Kelley, general manager of IDEO. These days innovation seems to be the trump card of executives and politicians who have grown bored with operational excellence. So I picked up this best-seller with great interest, from my public library. The first chapter made me chuckle.
I chuckled because after all the fuss about innovation being the way of the future, the guru on innovation starts out his book by espousing an ancient Lean manufacturing tenet: go to gemba.
The author attacks the “Devil’s advocate” in a way that makes me suspect the author harbors some deep personal trauma with having a precious idea shot down. He describes the “ten faces” of innovation that can be used to effectively counter the Devil’s advocate and nurture all ideas. The first “face” or personality is The Anthropologist.
An anthropologist observes people in their environments in order to understand them. The Anthropologist face of innovation is essentially about watching how customers interact with products and services in order to better understand unspoken needs or ways in which new products and services can be delivered.
It’s wonderful that this best-selling author starts out the book about coming up with new ideas by telling people to “go to gemba” and observe the process of the customer using the product or service. Just think, he could have told the world that the way to have great ideas is to stay within hushed cubicles with high walls in perfect concentration on the notion that’s already in your head. Instead he gives examples to demonstrates the kaizen principle of “go to gemba” applied to product development and idea generation. We named our consulting company Gemba Research because this practice is so effective.
By explaining how he came to see the wisdom of using social anthropologist skills as part of market research the author is freely admitting that he has seen the wisdom of coming down from the ivory tower domain of ideas to the world of actual people and actual things. Genchi gembutsu. I can’t wait to see what I can learn about kaizen from the rest of this book on innovation.

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