“Going to the Gemba” and “Going to the Customer” | Philip Marris

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.

8 comments on ““Going to the Gemba” and “Going to the Customer” | Philip Marris

  1. I believe it is imperative that employees producing the product go and view the customer or the supplier in order to gain a more appreciative view of how their product is used and more importantly how their customer/suppliers view then.
    I have visited countless automotive assembly plants and always had several employees accompany me and all were grateful for the opportunity. The stories that came out of these trips were eye opening. One of the benefits, trust was built with the employees. They observed and heard first hand on the shop floor.

  2. Visiting the Customer and Gemba. Part.1 —– The future of any organisation will ultimately be determined not by the value streams within their own organisation; but by the experience streams they create in the market place for their customers to enjoy. Genchi genbutsu should be applied to value and experience streams. My own career has included working in manufacturing, sales and marketing at both shop floor and management levels. For the last 33 years I have been helping companies develop in these three areas. I think sometimes we focus too much on our internal activities and fail to see they are the cause side of this equation. Our success comes from the effect side; we must be creating the best Products, Services and Experiences (PSE) for our customers to enjoy. Sustaining our success requires us to be continuously improving them faster then any existing or future competitor.
    Everyone is aware of Taiichi Ohno and TPS. What has not received any real attention is the role played in Toyota’s success by Shotaro Kamiya in Toyota Sales. He was to TSP – Toyota Sales Process, what Ohno was to TPS. In 1946 he defined the Toyota sales philosophy as, Customer First, Dealer Second and Lastly the Maker. This is still a central element of Toyota’s activities. In 2010 Toyota opened their ‘Customer first training centres’. —
    The second part of this post gives details of the listening process to be used to hear the ‘Voice of the customer’, the “Voice of the Market’ and how to respond to them.

  3. Visiting the Customer and Gemba. Part.2 listening to the voice of the customer (VOC) and reacting/adapting to it is essential for short term business success. You must however ensure you listen in the three key zones for providing customer satisfaction/delight; Product, Service and Experience. (P.S.E). —
    Organisations must give higher levels of customer satisfaction in these areas than any existing or future competitor. Doing this will guarantee their short term competitive advantage. —
    What is more fundamental to their long term business success is listening to the ‘voice of the market’. (VOM). You must then be continuously evolving your P.S.E offering to satisfy it more effectively than your competitors. Darwin’s rule that survival goes to those who successfully evolve to suit their changing environment, applies equally well to business organisations. —-
    Henry Ford captured this point in his famous comment; “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. —
    No customer asked Sony for a transistor radio or the Walkman.
    When you add the correct experience to several coffee beans, you can increase the selling price 1000%. Compare the Nescafe and Starbuck’s product.
    Wells Fargo was trying to design a better stagecoach for their customers. If they had realised that the market’s voice was saying transportation not stagecoaches, the world’s largest airline could today be carrying their name. —
    Real competitive breakthroughs come from listening to what I like to call the ‘silent’ market voices. When interrogating the market to stimulate these voices, we must ask questions of the 3W’s.
    What to Who in which Way.
    0 What… What new products, services and experiences could we supply?
    0 Who… Who else could we supply them to?
    0 Way… In which new Way can we supply them? —
    The question then becomes; ‘What’ more — To ‘Who’ else — In which new ‘Way’. —
    Using the answers to these questions, and the latest appropriate technology, we must develop specific products, services and experiences to delight them. It is only after their introduction that the need for these products, services or experiences are seen as obvious/essential by our deaf competitors. —
    On P.S.E creation workshops I like to start with a saying popular with mountain bikers;
    “Don’t follow the path, go where there is no path and leave a trail for others to follow”.
    On this same theme I was once told by a Disney imagineer that real creativity does not come from thinking outside the box; but not having boxes at all. The Japanese call this the sunao/fluid mind. —
    Companies must learn to listen for these silent voices and ensure this process becomes routine behaviour for their organisations. The first step is to define the gap between where they are now and where they need to be to exploit the identified market opportunity. They should then apply ‘Skunk working’ techniques to close the gap and bring the new P.S.E’s to market launch, in the shortest time and at the lowest cost.
    Speed gives price premium. Look at the price of the first model Walkman. —
    The Walkman and VHS video also illustrates how a ‘new technology voice’ in the market can lead to the destruction (extinction) of a product. Polaroid and Kodak were also victims of deafness in this area. —
    We must keep our ears and eyes open for all new technological developments. The Swiss watch industry didn’t understand this, and? The premier Swiss brands were not affected, because the Japanese could not match the ‘Experience’ of wearing an Omega.
    Organisational deafness has destroyed more companies than competitive activity. But it is always the changing market and competitive activity that are blamed.
    Happy listening!
    PS. Remember if you want to accurately predict the future, you must create it.

  4. Comment in the TPS Principles and Practice discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Going to the Gemba = improved efficiency.
    Going to the Customer = improved sales.

    Efficiency is a proportion of sales, so going to the Customer is more important.

    However, growing up in many small companies, I have seen numerous disasters with the wrong people going to the Customer. Engineers are constantly thinking about “what is wrong” with the product rather than trying to sell the good point. Floor personnel and value stream managers often inadvertently divulge proprietary information.

    The solution is to let marketing be their filter, then go to your marketing person. If the marketing is being done correctly this will work. If it isn’t “pull the andon” and fix the problem in marketing.

    • Is relying exclusively on Marketing the best way to “go to the customer”? The concern that employees who don’t routinely face customers may say the wrong things is legitimate. It’s just not what I have seen happen.

      In the supplier and OEM case, there is great value in direct peer-to-peer communication between production operators on both sides, which Marketing cannot generate. A visit, however, should be prepared. It is a privilege to participate, and only mature, responsible inviduals are invited. Then, participants should be briefed on the purpose of the visit and given guidelines on what to ask and what to say.

  5. Pingback: Going to the Customer at Starbucks | Markovitz Consulting

  6. The most intense part of the LinkedIn discussion is about customer input to product design and innovation, but there are many other reasons to “go to the customer.” In the accounts by Todd McCann, Jose Ignacio Erausquin, and myself, it was about manufacturing performance, not product design.

    The transition from handicraft to manufacturing severed the connection between the producers of goods and their users. This has been known for a long time. The following was written in 1844:

    “Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have, in two ways, affirmed himself, and the other person. (1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and, therefore, enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also, when looking at the object, I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses, and, hence, a power beyond all doubt. (2) In your enjoyment, or use, of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man’s essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man’s essential nature . . . Our products would be so many mirrors in which we saw reflected our essential nature.” (Karl Marx)

    In an ongoing manufacturing activity, the point of “going to the customer” is to restore this connection as much as possible. Producers who know what their products are used for and by whom cannot bear the idea of delivering defectives or even being late. The key challenge is figuring out how to practically organize it.

  7. Pingback: Toyota’s Way Changed the World’s Factories. Now the Retool | K. Buckland & N. Sano | Bloomberg | Michel Baudin's Blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *