Firsthand, on-the-frontlines observation can offer critical insights that facilitate informed—and inspired—decision-making.
The Japanese approach to problem-solving calls this Genchi Genbutsu (literally “go and see for yourself.”) Sometimes called “get your boots on,” it’s not unlike the notion of management by walking about (MBWA.)
Genchi Genbutsu Refers to a Disposition Than a Specific Action
Genchi Genbutsu is rooted in the idea that any report, say, about a problem on the shop floor, is an abstraction. It’s separated from its context, and therefore generalized and relativized.
Secondhand information tends to misrepresent reality enough to give you a false sense of conviction. The only real way to understand a problem is to see it on the shop floor and get the full breadth and depth of information to make the right decision.
For that reason, any solution concocted at headquarters, where the report is received and the problem diagnosed from a distance, is doubly abstracted from the source.
Genchi Genbutsu isn’t a license for management interference, but to understand the problem, unearth the root cause, and help those doing it to resolve the issue.
Genchi Genbutsu Case Study: Toyota Sienna and the 53,000-Mile Roadtrip
When Yuji Yokoya was appointed the chief engineer for the 2004 Toyota Sienna minivan, he had never designed a vehicle purposely for the North American market. He traveled 53,000 miles across North America to monitor and discover what was wrong with the previous Sienna models. He drove the Sienna and competitor’s minivans through every state in America, every province in Canada, and every state in Mexico. in February 2003, Forbes noted,
In Memphis, Yokoya’s minivan was blown into the next lane crossing the Mississippi from Tennessee to Arkansas. Fix: Yokoya reduced the van’s wind resistance by narrowing the gaps between panels and adding plastic shields under the wheel wells to redirect air.
In Yukon Territory, road noise on the Alaska Highway prevented conversation between the driver and rear passengers. Fix: Yokoya stiffened undercarriage to reduce twisting and added sound-dampening material to the frame.
A culture of on-the-spot problem solving is so ingrained in the Toyota culture. According to company lore,
In the mid-’70s, Toyota had just introduced a four-speed automatic transmission. It was very unusual to have an automatic transmission fail, if ever. It seemed indestructible. When Dr. Shoichiro Toyoda [scion of the founding family and chairman of Toyota 1992–99] visited a dealership, the dealer complained that a car just came in with a transmission that had failed. Dr. Toyoda, in his pressed suit, walked over to the technician, got in a dialogue with him, walked over to the oil pan where he’d drained the oil from the transmission, rolled his sleeve up, and put his hand in this oil, and pulled out some filings. He put the filings on a rag, dried them off, and put them in his pocket to take back to Japan for testing. He wanted to determine if the filings were the result of a failed part or if it was residue from the machining process.
Genchi Genbutsu Case Study: Medtronic and the Bloody Catheter
In the late ’80s, when Bill George became CEO of medical equipment manufacturer Medtronic, he discovered that its catheter sales weren’t good enough. His engineers had said the product was first-rate and improving.
When George visited an operating room to observe a surgical procedure, Medtronic’s catheter fell apart in the surgeon’s hands as soon as he inserted the balloon catheter into the patient’s femoral artery. The surgeon extracted the catheter from the patient. In a fit of rage, he hurled the blood-spattered device across at George, who ducked to avoid injury.
This “Bloody Catheter” incident helped Medtronic fix faulty products and spurred a thorough overhaul of Medtronic’s engineering, sales, and problem-solving processes. George later recalled,
Field reports are a dime a dozen. There’s no emotional association with them. But when you’re in a medical environment like an operating room, all your senses-sight, sound, smell, taste-are working. It’s a totally different experience than reading a field report.