Genchi Genbutsu: Do You Really Understand It?

By Ron Pereira Updated on May 21st, 2020

If you’ve read this blog – or really any other lean related publication – you’ve likely heard the phrase genchi genbutsu used many times.

“Data is of course important in manufacturing, but I place the greatest emphasis on facts.” – Taiichi Ohno

Jon Miller – who is fluent in Japanese – recently corrected me, and told me that genchi genbutsu literally means “actual place, actual thing.” The most popular definition seems to be that genchi genbutsu means to go and see with your own eyes at the place the work is done.

Definitions aside, I wonder how many people really understand what this lean philosophy truly means. Most seem to think it means to visit the gemba, or the place the work is done, when something needs addressed.

And I suppose it does. But it’s much more than this.

Meet Mr. Yuji Yokoya

In chapter 12 of Jeffrey Liker’s must read book The Toyota Way we meet Yuji Yokoya who was the chief engineer for the 2004 Toyota Sienna redesign.

Since Mr. Yokoya had never worked on a vehicle destined for the North American and regions of the South American market he asked his superiors if he could go to gemba to learn.

They approved… and boy did he ever go!

You see, Mr. Yokoya set off to drive a Sienna in all 50 American states as well as all 13 provinces in Canada. He also spent some time on the streets of Mexico.

What did he learn?

During his travels Mr. Yokoya learned many things, including:

  • The roads in Canada are very different, especially the high crowns in the middle of the road, probably meant to deal with the massive amounts of snow they get.
  • He learned that the winds in Mississippi are vicious and that, if not properly designed, the Sienna would be extremely unstable.
  • He also learned a valuable lesson about cup holders. Yes, cup holders. You see, in Japan people rarely eat or drink in their vehicles… but in the West Mr. Yokoya learned that eating and drinking in the car are very common.  So, the 2004 Sienna would soon come equipped with 14 cup holders as well as a little tray to place your Big Mac and fries.

What About Surveys and Focus Groups?

Some skeptics will say Mr. Yokoya could have learned some of this by sending out surveys and having focus groups share information.

Me, I am not so sure. I mean Mr. Yokoya felt the roads, he felt the wind, and he saw with his own eyes how we like to cram our faces with food while talking on the cell phone and drinking our coffee.

Now that’s priceless (and a little scary).

What do you think?

What does Genchi Genbutsu mean to you?  Do you see it practiced where you work?

  1. Chuck Montgomery

    February 13, 2009 - 9:10 am

    Interesting story! I definitely feel like I can do better in this area and know for sure my company as a whole can improve. We seem to have an us against them relationship between the suits and shop floor folks.

  2. Brian Buck

    February 13, 2009 - 3:40 pm

    I see this where I work but sometimes it is through kicking and screaming.

    I try to trick executives by choosing conference rooms near Gemba and then taking them for a walk (no complaints yet). I am trying to convince IT to not create an exec dashboard because I fear it will enable them to avoid gemba (not working as well as I would like).

    I recently had a process owner walk back from Gemba advising nothing new was learned. Five minutes later the process owner was advising they had no idea of a policy change witnessed in Gemba. They also advised they expected one thing but saw another. I found it interesting they demonstrated the fruits of Gemba but still resist the idea mentally.

    We get a TON of requests for more data, more data, more data! I think they want more data because they aren’t spending enough time in gemba to get the facts. Analysis paralysis happens when you don’t go and see!

  3. Evan Miller

    February 19, 2009 - 10:37 am

    Spot on. My company is a real-time data company. Customers come to us because they want data and dashboards and all that stuff. And it is great. But ultimately all that real-time visibility to data has to translate into work. It can tell you when something has changed. It can tell you if the change is statistically significant so that you’re not reacting in the wrong way to random variation. But ultimately you have to get up from your desk and go to the work to see for yourself. Tools can help you know when and where to go, but they won’t do the work for you. See http://www.hertzler.com/blog/dataheads/index.php/2009/02/going-to-the-work/

    For me personally it means going to meet my customers on their turf. Nothing teaches me as much as that.

  4. Owen Berkeley-Hill

    February 23, 2009 - 5:56 pm

    From my long experience, conventional management training has done everything possible to divorce leaders from the reality of the workplace. The practice of “fast tracking” is a relic from WWII, when dead men’s shoes had to be filled quickly. Now it is done to groom the annointed quickly. The development of spreadsheets and dashboards has only increases this separation, not improved management decision making. I often wonder why management need reports, which, if you think about them are a form of waste. Are they the only ones who can make decisions or entitled to do so? By the time they decide, is it possible that a minor problem has now escalated into a disaster? Does it help managers in their careers to be seen as a Rambo heroically blasting away at the symptoms of a problem? Would life be a little more boring if an educated, empowered and enthusiastic workforce solved most of problems for themselves? Could they fear the alternative of encouraging and coaching people to solve problems rather because they do not understand what goes on in the Gemba.
    Have you seen the end of the Men’s Final at Wimbledon when the Duke of Kent comes down from the royal box to award the cup? He makes it a point to talk to one or two of ball boys and girls who flank the way. How enlightening is the conversation? How does it compare with the usual visit by the CEO?
    Yes, there is more, much more to Genchi Genbutsu, but I doubt many will understand, as it goes against the teachings of the vast Mafia of business schools.

  5. Dan Markovitz

    March 2, 2009 - 5:24 pm

    Focus groups wouldn’t have worked, because neither the participants nor the facilitators would have even thought to ask about (or comment on) something as “obvious” as the crowned roads. Or the high winds. Those are facts of life, and are therefore taken as a given. It’s only be inserting a person from a different environment that the differences can be seen.

  6. Nilesh Babu

    March 2, 2009 - 8:16 pm

    though not the high level managers, P&G has a program called Living It – where P&G employees live with lower income family for several days to understand their product better.

    “Going beyond traditional methods such as focus groups and one-way glass, P&G employees visit homes, shop with consumers and work in stores to see how they choose and use products.”

    via: http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/04/29/business/NA-FEA-FIN-US-P-Gs-Boss.php

  7. Andry Haryanto

    March 4, 2009 - 10:17 pm

    Do you always have the luxury of getting your hands wet at the gemba… genchi genbutsu? Sometimes the economics do not allow for such opportunity. Genchi genbutsu is getting your hands wet; how wet should you get?

    I am currently working in a team of industrial engineers at Sprint Customer Care. We define and execute call center improvement strategy. This week, I am conducting an assessment of our contact center in Panama City Beach.

    We are conducting an assessment to determine potential improvement opportunities by interviewing, collecting data, and shadowing some supervisors. For one week. I see some good data that we can analyze, but I feel like there are a lot of details missing from the observation.

    In this position, I feel like I’m playing golf on Nintendo Wii. I understand the game good enough, but not enough to teach anyone to improve his game.

    An equivalent for Mr. Yokoya’s journey is for Sprint to have me take over a supervisor’s duty to truly understand and appreciate the complexity. For Toyota, it is easy for them to give Mr. Yokoya a van to drive around. For Sprint, can they afford to have me act as an acting supervisor? Can they absorb the slide in metrics if I can’t manage my team’s performance? Maybe they can arrange for me to perform the duties just for a few days or weeks?

    Good idea! Why are we not doing it, then?

    First of all, not many college-educated industrial engineers want to step down as a call center supervisors. Not to mention the long hours and high-stress environment.

    The second reason, it is much more costly and time-consuming than the second-best alternative: surveys, shadowing, focus groups. This project has a very short time-constraint. If I were an executive, during the current economic condition (and possibly threat of bankruptcy, wallstreet expectation, etc.) I might sacrifice quality for speed, as long as it is good enough.

  8. Owen Berkeley-Hill

    March 5, 2009 - 12:06 pm

    I suppose before one goes to the Gemba or decides on the alternatives of market research and focus groups, it is probably wise to understand the purpose of the process.

    Many years before Lean and Six Sigma were fashionable, the Process Diagram was in use at Ford. This should not be confused with a process map. The diagram has two feedback loops: the “Voice of the Customer” and the “Voice of the Process” (Process Capability in Black Belt speak). If you ask an audience if the customer is important, you are unlikely to get the response, “No!” But how many organisations are really prepared to listen to customer feedback? For example, now that we have the Web, and the ability to communicate with speed, reach and clarity our parents could only dream about, how many airlines, automakers, mobile-phone companies, and consultancies encourage their customers to give them feedback. I’d guess their portals would be far cheaper than market researchers, but I suppose many expensive egos would be bruised by their customers’ honesty.

    So what is the purpose of a Call Centre? Is it to act as an additional revenue stream as customers are kept on hold in a queue which costs them a dollar a minute? Is it to run interference (I suspect the influence of the Buckeyes)? Or is it to really understand what the customer thinks of the product or service and to help them when things go wrong? After all, isn’t this feedback perhaps the biggest single influence on the organisation’s definition of quality? If we accept this then we might (as John Seddon has suggested) alter our criteria for Call Centre success and failure. We might, for example, try to understand the extent of “failure” demand: demand on the Call Centre which is the result of poor product or service quality. If this represents a significant proportion of all calls, then the Call Centre could be considered a waste. But imagine if 99.9% of calls were made because customers wanted more (value-adding demand)? So what is the purpose?

  9. Priyavrat Thareja

    April 17, 2009 - 3:29 am

    Mr. Yokoya worked on genchi genbutsu right. He actually meant and practised collecting right data “actual place, actual thing,” all affected by moving miles.

    If one had assigned this job to a native- through questionare?
    How do you know your own behaviour- and any disparations therein? The little things which make a difference are not noticed in a jiffy.
    Remebering Pareto in a lighter vein, 20 % things contribute to 80 % of the impact ( small things make great (Taguchi) noise) and 80 % of addressal of common things is futile. Toyota does precisely that. with all thanks to the small advice(s).

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