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The true meaning of Genchi Genbutsu

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genchi genbutsu man looking for answers in the ocean

Out of the five key principles of the Toyota Way, the one that most changed my approach towards work and life is Genchi Genbutsu.

Many people are somewhat “allergic” to Japanese terms. They immediately search for an expression in the local language. This is completely legitimate. Yet I must say that the current translations I have seen so far don’t reflect the complete significance of Genchi Genbutsu.

Within the most common and oversimplified translations of Genchi Genbutsu, we find: “go and see”, “Gemba walks” and (for some reason I really hate this one) “management by walking around”.  While these translations have some truth in them, they really fall short from the original semantics.

Genchi Genbutsu Meaning:

The literal translation of Genchi Genbutsu is close to “actual place, actual thing”. Yet, it’s more enriching to read Toyota’s own definition, as expressed in the Toyota Way 2001 internal pamphlet: “we practice genchi genbutsu… go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus and achieve goals at our best speed.“

Facts and consensus for goal achievement. At best speed (not necessarily the fastest).

The main issue I have with the aforementioned oversimplified translations is that they give the impression that Genchi Genbutsu is 1) only for management, 2) an exceptional event, or 3) an exceptional management event. Sure, point 3 is simply 1+2, but it’s probably the worst interpretation of the concept. It usually consists of a greatly announced and rather exceptional top management visit to the shop floor, where the manager heroically carries the flag across the battlefield, shakes hands and kisses the babies (metaphorically speaking). It can still have this feeling even if the heroic visit is done weekly.

Regarding point 1: certainly, Genchi Genbutsu must be practiced by management: for coaching, challenging and keeping to the purpose stated in the Toyota definition. Yet not only by management. Facts and consensus for goal achievement. This is valid for everyone within the company, at all levels.

Regarding point 2: Genchi Genbutsu is not an event, it’s a habit. A daily practice. A way of working. It’s, in fact, how we get the facts! Here it’s important to understand the difference between data and facts. Data can be obtained at the comfort of our desk. Facts can only be truly so when we obtain them on our own, at the source.

How to do Genchi Genbutsu? First, identify your genchi (actual place). The source of your genbutsu (actual thing, the product or information). Then, be there.

If you want to know what is the current status of that important shipment, get up and go to your despatch area.

If there is a problem at a supplier affecting you, don’t rush them to send you the 8D report. Go to their shop floor to understand the issue and state how important it is for you that it gets solved.

If you want to understand your customers’ needs for the next product development, don’t commission a focus group. Go and observe your customers in their usual environment.

If you want to understand why your workers are not motivated, go have lunch where they do and use the bathrooms they use. Even better, do the work they do.

If you want to get some information from that guy in Finance down the hall, don’t send him an email. Stand up, walk for 45 seconds, say hello and kindly ask for it.

The largely repeated formula (in Lean circles) is always a valid guide:

“Go see. Ask why. Show respect.”

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