Genchi Genbutsu on the Retail Floor

Mother and daughter shopping for groceries in supermarket

The September 14, 2009 Wall Street Journal article Seeing Store Shelves Through Senior Eyes explains how retailers are applying the TPS principle of genchi genbutsu (go to the floor and see what’s really going on) in redesigning their merchandise and store design to prepare for the coming wave of elderly shoppers. Kimberly-Clark Corp ran an exercise for retailers to help executives see for themselves how aging baby boomer customers, who will be nearly 20% of the US consumer base by 2030, will experience their stores.

Before walking into a Walgreens drugstore here, Todd Vang donned glasses that blurred his vision, slipped un-popped popcorn into his shoes and adjusted tape that bound his thumbs to his palms.

The get-up was part of an exercise designed to help retailers better understand the physical challenges facing elderly shoppers. Mr. Vang, a 42-year-old Walgreen Co. vice president, struggled to pick up a can of soup. “I can’t imagine how this would feel if the store were crowded,” he said.

Kaizen starts with the identification of a problem followed by repeated trips to the actual site of the problem (genchi) to correctly grasp the situation, clarify the problem, gather facts to get down to root cause and test various countermeasures. The WSJ article details issues along the entire senior consumer retail value stream (without using those words) from the parking lot through store layout, product location on the shelf and design product packaging.

Next, the executives wore yellow-tinted glasses to replicate the yellowing-effect that comes with age. “How are your vitamins showing up?” says Ms. Kuerschner, pointing to the flier’s front page where vitamin bottles’ yellow labels disappeared against a bright yellow background.
Such glasses led Kimberly-Clark product developers to realize that many older shoppers couldn’t distinguish between green and blue Kleenex wrapping. Kimberly-Clark now uses text and images as well to distinguish between tissue versions.

This reminded me of an extremely interesting book a I read a while back titled Why We Buy by Paco Underhill. Mr. Underhill began as a sociologist and for the past decade has run a research and consulting firm called Envirosell specializing in studying human behavior in the retail environment, and what retailers should do to change so that people buy more. The parallels with what we do at Gemba Consulting were striking. We both spend a lot of time observing, listening and helping clients redesign their processes to be more effective. The major difference is that we engage people directly, rather than make recommendations on how to change merchandise, store layout or cash and wrap operations to modify human behavior.

The 1999 edition of the book had what are now quaint musings on the impact the internet would have on retail. Based on reviews of the revised 2008 editions, it seems there is still a gap in translating Paco Underhill’s method for improving retail performance to the internet retail. That is not surprising, nor should it be a concern.

The internet is a fundamentally different retail gemba that requires a different approach. The underlying human behaviors may be the same or they may not be; they only way to capture this reality is to go see.

The book Why We Buy made me look at shopping a bit differently, reminding me that the retail floor is a gemba of its own. Going shopping with others is slightly more interesting when one can make observations on store layouts, merchandise design, check out queues and relate them to principles in the book. If you’re curious about Paco Underhill’s methodology, you will find a video description by clicking on the image below.


This Wall Street Journal article was a good reminder that gemba kaizen works anywhere. The facts that will transform our businesses don’t come from the boardrooms but from the floor (sales, production, hospital, etc. We need to go see how customers are actually using our products and services in order to improve. Often there are unexpected differences between the design of the product, service or process and how customers use them. This is where the PDCA cycle of learning and continuous improvement is vital. This cycle in fact works more like CAP-Do: Check, Act, Plan, Do.

Early and often, genchi genbutsu. It’s hard to go wrong doing that.

1 Comment

  1. Karen Wilhelm

    September 16, 2009 - 3:16 pm

    “Why We Buy” should be required reading for all lean folks. He goes into detail on how to observe, whether it’s people at Penney’s handling bath towels or operators in a factory going about their business. I think it would be especially useful going either up or down the real connections in the supply chain.