One of the pillar principles of kaizen and lean management is genchi genbutsu – literally “actual place actual thing” but often translated as “go see for yourself”. One of the first things a lean sensei will do is to take the student out to the shop floor, sales floor or hospital floor on what is often called a gemba walk. The purpose is to begin calibrating the student’s visual perception of reality with that of the more experienced lean master. In short, the gemba walk helps the student learn to see the details they now overlook. At first these details can be the size of the proverbial elephant in the room. With time, the details spotted by the sensei and missed by the learner are like dust.
But do you know why you should go see for yourself? Is it really to hone one’s eyes to see lean opportunities? I have heard very senior executives argue convincingly and with passion that their staff does the “go see” and gives eye-opening reports on what is working and what is not on the front lines. It is the job of the executive, he argues, to prioritize, delegate and empower action among his management team. This resistance to conducting frequent gemba walks comes in part from fear of looking like a fool for the first dozen walks while they learn “what is what” (never mind “what is muda”) on the front lines.
It is extremely difficult, perhaps misguided, to sell the gemba walk to the executive on the basis of honing their visual acuity to spot waste. The young executive is well advised to make a fool of herself, take the time to grow as a lean thinker, and be ready to grow their team. For the senior executive, delegating this to those with more years ahead of them to learn is advisable. This is not to say that senior executives or mature CEOs get a pass from genchi genbutsu. What then is the reason for them to go see for themselves? A passage from Peter Drucker’s classic The Effective Executive answers this perfectly:
When General Eisenhower was elected president, his predecessor Harry S. Truman, said: “Poor Ike; when he was a general, he gave an order and it was carried out. Now he is going to sit in that big office and he’ll give an order and not a damn thing is going to happen.”
The reason why “not a damn thing is going to happen” is, however, not that generals have more authority than presidents. It is that military organizations learned long ago that futility is the lot of most orders and organized the feedback to check on the execution of that order. They learned long ago that to go oneself and look is the only reliable feedback. Reports – all a president is normally able to mobilize – are not much help. All military services have long ago learned that the officer who has given an order goes out and sees for himself whether it has been carried out. At least he sends one of his own aides – he never relies on what he is told by the subordinate to whom the order was given. Not that he distrusts the subordinate; he has learned from experience to distrust communications.
How many executives have read this book, come across this gem of wisdom and shrugged it off as another interesting theory or management method that they don’t have time to put into practice? First written in 1967, The Effective Executive has been thoroughly read and respected in Japan. Long before genchi genbutsu became a lean management buzz phrase, Peter Drucker was teaching “go see for yourself”. Centuries before that, the most effective military leaders were eating the same food in the mess hall or sharing a ration on the front lines with their troops.
Ironically with progress we have made it harder, not easier, to go see. Peter Drucker predicted:
With the coming of the computer this will become even more important, for the decision-maker will, in all likelihood, be even further removed from the scene of action. Unless he accepts, as a matter of course, that he had better go out and look at the scene of action, he will be increasingly divorced from reality.
Maybe the ultra modern executive will realize they can send a trusted aide to the shop floor with an iPad, streaming video back to the executive so that even if “go” is not practical the “see for yourself” is enabled through technology.
Why should you go see for yourself? Because as Drucker observed from the behavior of effective military leaders, we should distrust communications. Every information hand-off is an opportunity for a defect. The root causes of communication errors are too many to number, too insidious and part of the fabric of the nature and society of people that brevity, frequency and directness are the only sure countermeasures. These information errors are not visible unless we go to the source to check, comparing what was said versus what was heard versus what was done.