In the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn, Philip Marris started a discussion on this topic three weeks ago with the following statement:
"I believe that going to the customer is nearly as important as going to the Gemba.
I won’t comment on “Going to the Gemba” in this LinkedIn discussion group because normally we are all already totally convinced that it is vital and I would bet that most of us enjoy nothing more than those moments on the shop floor seeing, smelling, listening, touching, thinking, learning and coaching.
What I wanted to do with this post is: ask if there is a Japanese (or even better a Toyota Motor Company) term for “Going to the customer” and ask members what their experience is on this subject. I think it is both different and similar to “Gemba walks” and very important.
Personally, after over 25 years in industry in many countries and cultures, I am continually disappointed by the "go to the customer" practices. Some small to medium sized firms are good at it but large organizations seem to lose it. This is especially true of B2B (Business To Business) operations but also in B2C (Business to Customer or Consumer goods manufacturers) where even the best tend to completely delegate this crucial element to the Sales and Marketing people.
I think going to the customer is important for all employees: workers on the shop floor, those that purchase the packaging, those that print the bill, those that take the customer orders, the top management ... I would add that for some B2B companies they should of course go further down the Supply Chain and get to the final customer (the one that uses the product). "
There have been 28 comments so far, many of them theoretical, about the value of customer feedback, or off-topic, about the foibles of MBAs, with a few accounts of personal experience. I picked out the following:
- Todd McCann: "While working with Boeing of Winnepeg (composite parts Mfg) we led a 3Gen road trip to Everett and Renton WA where the Winn gemba workers learned more in 1 hour how the customer viewed their parts and the Par traveling paper work that accompanied the part, than they wanted. Eye opening to say the least. I recall, Heads kept moving back and forth side to side, eyes closed and open palms slapped the forehead."
- José Ignacio Erausquin Arruabarrena. About 20 year ago, when I was managing a plant being Tier 1 supplier of the automotive sector, I remember as one of the practices that was really appreciated by the workforce, the one to have always one or two operators of the assembly line in the visits to the customer, when developing new products or even when answering to customer claims. Operators observing how their customer utilizes their product is one of the best sources of improvement that you can imagine.
My own experience is consistent with Todd's and José Ignacio's. When I was consulting for Boeing Portland, a machine shop making structural components, one of their best practices was sending a small group to the assembly plant that used their products once a quarter, to meet with the assemblers and collect their feedback. They recorded the interaction on video, and played it back to the entire production team back home. Different people went every quarter, and I went along on one of of these visits.
It is relatively easy to organize such things for an in-house supplier, to a plant that is not too far away. It is more complicated when you are dealing with actual customers, especially when the customers are not end-users but dealers or distributors. If you are selling to dealers, you can, for example, place technicians for a few months at dealerships when you launch a new product, to gain first-hand knowledge of any problems end-user may report to the dealership about the product.
When GM created the dealership system to sell cars in the 1920s, the primary purpose was to shield the production plants from the fluctuations in the market. Dealer inventories acted as a buffer to allow production plants to proceed at a constant pace. As they quickly discovered, however, this system also shielded GM from information about market trends, and they didn't realize the market had a downturn until the lots of their dealers were all full.
To keep a finger on the pulse of the market, Toyota in its early days sold cars door-to-door. Chatting with housewives, the sales rep learned that Mr. Yamada had been promoted, and paid him a visit in the evening to sell him a car to fit his new position. While it provided better market intelligence than dealerships, it was too expensive an approach and was abandoned.
Much later, about 2000, Toyota launched an internet portal in Japanese called gazoo.com, dedicated to "car life," with information like used car values, games for kids during long rides, recommendations for pleasant road trips, etc. It is different from the brochureware websites of other car makers. They didn't explain why they did this, but my guess is that it was to recover the direct contact with customers that door-to-door sales used to provide. Through their clicks, page views, and comments, gazoo visitors are telling Toyota about the market.
Another approach is to bring customers to the production plant. Until Honda of America closed their Marysville motorcycle plant in 2009, they held a yearly "homecoming" for bikers. All owners were invited to a big party, with a tour of the plant and meetings with the production teams. The idea was also adopted by Saturn, but every four years, and they stopped in 2004.
In a similar spirit, Porsche in Leipzig lets buyers pick up their Panameras and Cayennes at the assembly plant. The customers tour the spotless final assembly line, get an hour of coaching with a pro on the test track, eat at the fine-dining restaurant in the visitor center, and buy expensive souvenirs. And, for this privilege, they pay an extra 1,250 euros.