Article Revised: March 27, 2019
The goal of Lean Six Sigma, in brief, is to give customers and other stakeholders what they want by focusing on customer needs and maintaining superior quality and minimal waste. This system combines the revolutionary management philosophies of Lean, which grew from the Toyota Production System, and Motorola’s Six Sigma. In today’s hyper-competitive market, successfully implementing the quality-focused, customer-driven philosophy of Lean Six Sigma can be instrumental in keeping a company alive. If you’re ready to find and eliminate the sources of inefficiency and poor quality that could prove lethal for your business, it’s time to “get your boots on”: genchi genbutsu.
If boots aren’t your style, genchi genbutsu can also be translated as “go and see for yourself.” According to The Economist, “genchi genbutsu represents a fundamental difference between western and Japanese management styles—whereas in the West knowledge is gleaned and digested in the office or the boardroom, in Japan it is gleaned on the factory floor.” The concept can easily be generalized beyond manufacturing; the essence of genchi genbutsu is simply this: optimal decision-making requires that you physically go to the relevant place (gemba) to observe the relevant objects (genbutsu) yourself. In fact, the term gemba itself is commonly used instead of genchi genbutsu, because the entirety of this concept is actually captured by the idea of place—being on the spot, at the source of the action, to identify and take advantage of opportunities for improvement.
Going to the gemba was fundamental to the managerial approach pioneered and taught by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System. According to his student and colleague Michikazu Tanaka, Ohno “never rendered judgment simply on the basis of hearing about something. He always insisted on going to the place in question and having a look.” It’s convenient to base important decisions on second-hand information, especially when deadlines and obligations are rapidly mounting, but second-hand information is often incomplete or incorrect information, and bad information leads to bad decisions.
Success with Lean Six Sigma requires dedication and consistency. When declaring Toyota to be 2005’s “Smartest Company of the Year,” CNNMoney provided a powerful illustration of Toyota’s commitment to the gemba attitude and of the dramatic results that can come from “getting your boots on.” When assigned the task of revamping Toyota’s Sienna minivan for 2004, chief engineer Yuji Yokoya set out in a Sienna on a 53,000-mile North American road trip, crossing the continent five times and letting the road “tell” him how to fix the “small and underpowered” minivan. As a result of Yokoya listening to the North American roads, the updated Sienna emerged as “the car critics’ darling,” second only to the Dodge Caravan in U.S. minivan sales that year. The new Sienna sported a ti ghter turning radius in response to the narrow streets of downtown Santa Fe. The gravel of the Alaska Highway had inspired the addition of all-wheel-drive. Roll-up sunshades for the second- and third-row side windows now blocked the bright Mississippi sun.
Along with the necessity of genchi genbutsu, Taiichi Ohno also taught the importance of learning from experience and from experienced experts.