FROM THE BLOG

The One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge :: Week 12 :: Operations :: Genchi Genbutsu

In the last few One Year, Thirty Minute Challenge exercises, I’ve encouraged you to assemble some trusted team members to complete the exercise. This one is a solo effort. In fact, going solo is at the crux of this exercise.

The inspiration for this week’s challenge comes from the Toyota Production System (TPS). TPS is the poster child for operational excellence. One of the tenets of TPS is Genchi Genbutsu. It literally means “real location, real thing”. You might have heard the usual shorthand for this tenet, go and see”.

Why is it mandatory for an owner, manager or supervisor to “go and see”? Because some things can only be understood by being experienced. Many years ago, I managed a call center. There was a central group of 35 phone agents and 5 ancillary groups with more specialized tasks that together also numbered about 35. For the three years I ran the call center, almost every Wednesday morning (our busiest weekday), I took calls with the operators for three or four hours. I sat in the same cubicles, used the same chairs, talked on the same telecom equipment, typed on the same hardware, used the same software and talked to the same customers. It was the mother of all educations. And the benefits were enormous. I got big time “street cred” with the customer service reps. I knew what equipment wasn’t working well. I knew what worked well with the software and what needed to be changed in the next version. I knew what customers were happy about and what they were frustrated about. It became impossible for my staff to buffalo me. I was able to argue persuasively when I talked to my boss about resources. I would have had none of this had I not “gone and seen”.

Over my thirteen years as a consultant, I’ve checked-in resort guests, unloaded trucks, stocked shelves, talked to client customers about software problems, responded to client customers on social media and more. Why? Because I was working with clients to design processes they could roll out to teams and those processes had to be right. They had to work for employees and customers, and they had to be able to scale. After the work, when I was rolling out those processes to additional teams at the client site, they had been battle-tested and I had the scars to prove it. Afterward, when I was back in the boardroom with owners and CEOs, I was able to report on my work with confidence because I knew that what the client teams and I had created together was bulletproof. When I was advising the client to invest additional resources, I had both empirical and anecdotal evidence that the resources were needed.

The exercise for this week is very simple. What is that operational problem that won’t go away or that process that just seems clunky? The best way to solve it is “go and see”. You might be spending time with your sales team calling prospective clients. You might be on the factory floor examining people, production steps or equipment. You might be hanging out in the accounting department looking at the way you process vendor invoices. You might be evaluating vendor performance. Whatever it is, approach it with the least amount of prejudice possible. Ask a lot of questions and listen intently to the answers.

Here are some questions to answer as you flesh out the operational problem and begin to design the solution. As Charles Kettering said, “A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.”

  • How did we first become aware of this problem? From a customer? From an employee?
  • How can I get the “deepest drink” from this on-ground experience?
  • How long will it take to get an accurate picture of the circumstances that surround this problem?
  • How are employees impacted?
  • How are customers impacted?
  • How is revenue impacted?
  • How is expense impacted?
  • Are we more concerned about “fixing the problem” than “fixing the blame” and have we communicated that clearly?
  • How much of the problem is self-inflicted?
  • Is it attributable to poor product quality or poor service delivery upstream?
  • How quickly can we rectify the product or service problem?
  • Can we identify other upstream causes of the problem?
  • Can we identify other downstream consequences of the problem?
  • Is it traceable back to a vendor?
  • If so, do we have an alternate source that will solve the problem?
  • Can this problem be solved with money?
  • Can this problem be solved with a process change?
  • Is the problem caused by a management failure – lack of resources, poor working conditions, failure to deal with a problem employee, unrealistic expectations, lack of training?
  • Is this problem tied to a “sacred cow” that needs to be sacrificed?
  • Are we hesitating to “pull the plug” because of sunk cost?
  • Have I asked the people most intimately involved how to solve the problem?
  • If not, why not?
  • Can we enlist someone from another discipline to look at the problem, leveraging expertise from an “outsider”?
  • Is this a value-creation activity that should remain in-house or is it a candidate for outsourcing, especially if the outsource provider could do it better and eliminate the problem?
  • After we have a rudimentary understanding of the circumstances surrounding this problem and begin to address it, how can we stay connected to it to make sure the corrective actions are working?

Go and see isn’t effective just for solving operational problems, it’s also a reliable way to design processes for new initiatives.

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