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Genchi Genbutsu

03 February, 2023


This is a Japanese phrase meaning 'go and see for yourself,' which is a central pillar of the Toyota Way, the famous management system adopted by the Japanese car company. Genchi genbutsu is sometimes referred to as 'get your boots on,' which has a similar cadence and meaning. It is not dissimilar to the idea behind management by walking about, an all-too-briefly popular American version of the same principle.

As the above quote states "Genchi Genbutsu" simply means "go and see."  It is one of the foundational principles of the Toyota Production System. It suggests that in order to truly understand a situation, you need to go to the gemba or, the "real place," where work is done.

The common approach to management is for the manager to summon those involved to his office, discuss the situation, and make a decision. What genchi genbutsu says is that in order to make good decisions the managers need to go to the physical location where there is a problem or that is a focal point for a needed decision. Genchi genbutsu values practical experience over theoretical knowledge, and places an emphasis on the decision makers seeing, and getting to know the problem themselves.

In his book about management Tim Hindle gives the five golden rules of gemba management:

Gemba means "place", the place (as it were) where the action happens. Genchi genbutsu involves going to the gemba to check on the genbutsu (the relevant objects). Masaaki Imai, a Japanese management writer who introduced the west to the idea of Kaizen, wrote a book called Gemba Kaizen. This combined the concept of gradual improvement (Kaizen) with an on-the-spot presence (gemba) -- being there in order to spot any opportunity for improvement.

Imai says there are five golden rules of what he calls gemba management:

. When a problem arises, go to the gemba first-don't try to make a diagnosis on the phone.

. Check the genbutsu-the relevant objects-because "seeing is believing".

. Take temporary counter-measures on the spot to resolve the problem.

. Then find the root cause of the problem.

. Lastly, standardize procedures to avoid a recurrence.The typical manager's first reaction to the concept of genchi genbutsu is that, in most cases, it is not really necessary to physically go to the physical location. A manager should have enough experience and knowledge to make the right decision, without physically looking at the situation. However, even if that is true, physically going to the location of the problem has a number of benefits:

  • It demonstrates management commitment to solving the problem. It shows workers that the problem is important.
  • It provides workers the opportunity to provide their input on the problem. Knowing their voices have been heard, and taken seriously, accomplishes a number of things:
    • Workers will be more supportive of the solution.
    • Workers will be more likely to report problems in the future.
    • It opens communication between management and workers.
    • The eventual solution will be better, because it is based on the experience of those who are doing the work.
  • The manager may see aspects of the situation others had missed.

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.

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