Tips for Lean Managers

Genchi Gembutsu at the Starbucks Coffee Company

By Jon Miller Published on February 24th, 2007

Toyota is not the only global brand having growing pains from its success these days. In today’s Wall Street Journal article titled Starbucks Chairman Says Trouble May Be Brewing, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz has sent out a memo questioning whether their drive for growth and efficiency has diluted the customer experience at Starbucks.
It sounds like Howard Schultz is a bit dissatisfied with the atmosphere of some Starbucks stores. From the WSJ article:
When workers first tried cooking the sandwiches, cheese sometimes dripped off them and into the warming oven, sending a strong odor of burned cheese through the cafes. Mr. Schultz complained when he walked into a Starbucks near the company’s Seattle headquarters and smelled a burning sandwich, according to a manager at the store. Starbucks switched ovens and told workers to clean them regularly.
Way to go to gemba to find and solve problems, Mr. Schultz. The only problem is that with 13,000 stores and a plan for as many as 40,000 stores worldwide, there is not nearly enough physical presence of brand visionary Chairman Schultz to go around.
Starbucks switched ovens and told workers to clean them regularly. So they fired the ovens, told the workers what to do, and problem solved.
There is a lesson in point here about the difference between Toyota-style genchi gembutsu management and problem solving as a habit, and the “stumble upon” problem solving or innovation typical American of management’s approach, as being illustrated in the Wall Street Journal article.
Here’s a pair of personal Starbucks stories. A few months ago we had a severe windstorm and lost power for most of a week. The local Starbucks became something of a refuge. The baristas did a great job keeping everyone’s spirits up, managing the long queues, taking and calling out orders. They took some initiative and made good out of a bad situation. I will go to that Starbucks store again.
A few weeks back I was in Philadephia on a very cold and windy day. Due to the layout of this particular downtown Starbucks store, the only way they could remove the large plastic garbage container was to drag the trash can through the store, bumping past our table, and at one point stationing the trash next to our table for a few minutes while they unlocked half of the glass door (which was larger than the opening of the unlocked half of the door) so that trash can could be taken outside, and down about 5 steps. Did I mention that this was a very cold and windy day? I may never go back to that store again.
To some degree you can chalk up this difference to the physical constraints of the store, but truly exceptional organizations have teams of people who are trained in how to overcome various local conditions and obstacles to solve problems or deliver great customer experiences.
Howard Schultz’s memo is a good start. If Starbucks wants to maintain the customer experience, they need to teach the people on the gemba (Starbucks stores) these principles and how to make decisions to fix problems like the smell of burnt sandwiches, garbage 2 feet from my coffee, and the freezing cold wind blowing through the doors wedged open while the trash can goes bump bump down the steps.
Luckily, genchi gembutsu, or the habit of going on-site to see the actual product or service being produced or delivered in order to manage by fact and solve problems, is highly teachable. It just has to start at the top.

  1. Mark Graban

    February 24, 2007 - 3:19 pm

    The changes to Starbucks all reek of business decisions made by MBA’s at headquarters. Of course it’s cheaper to not grind your own coffee in each store. But is that the best thing for the customer experience, in taste and atmosphere?
    This is what happens when a coffee company is run by finance people (or so I’m guessing). We’ve seen what happens when car companies are run by finance people instead of car people.

  2. Patrick Rosser

    February 24, 2007 - 3:51 pm

    You can get free online access to the Wall Street Journal and those other subscription sites with a netpass from:
    I saw this on CNBC and thought it was a great tip!

  3. robert thompson

    February 25, 2007 - 9:46 am

    I recently posted about San-Gen Shugi ( and the need for three things:
    1. Solve problems and improve processes by going to the source and personally observing and verifying data rather than theorizing on the basis of what other people or the computer screen tell you.
    2. Think and speak based on personally verified data.
    3. Even high-level managers and executives should go and see things for themselves, so they will have more than a superficial understanding of the situation
    But after recently watching the movie Gung Ho again ( I think the following quote kind of sums up the differing approaches between Japan and the US:
    Hunt Stevenson (US plant manager): Afterwards we have a few beers and p**s for distance.
    Kazihiro (new Japanese owner): For us it’s accuracy.

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