Customer experience leaders: When was the last time you went to the gemba?


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Have you ever heard of the expression: ‘Going to the gemba’ ?

It originates from Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System, and suggests that managers should regularly go to the place where ‘value is created’ to both learn and look for ways to improve how things are done.

Now, gemba is a Japanese word and means “the real place” i.e. the place where things actually happen. For example, TV reporters talk about ‘reporting from the gemba’ whilst police detectives talk about gemba as being the ‘scene of the crime’.

In business terms, therefore, the gemba could be could be anywhere from a factory floor to a retail environment to a contact center to someone using your mobile app whilst walking down the street. In fact, it could be anywhere where a business interacts with its customers.

However, despite the fact that this idea has been around for a long time and has been adopted as a principle and practice of Lean management, I don’t see much evidence of it happening in many organizations these days.

In fact, I would go further and suggest that today’s modern work environment mitigates against this sort of practice with many professionals and leaders spending their days poring over spreadsheets, project plans, dashboards, data analytics, metrics and KPIs etc etc …..and that’s when they are not stuck in a routine of endless and back to back meetings.

The situation seems to have gotten so bad that even strategists and account planners at branding and marketing agencies admit that they “don’t get out into the real world very often” and when they do they are “celebrated”, according to Doug Kleeman, Senior Brand Strategist at Big Spaceship.

But, rather than ruminating about how we got here, I’m more interested in encouraging leaders and professionals, and particularly those in the customer experience space, to get out there and and to go and talk to, meet, listen to, observe and learn from the customers we aim to serve.

With that in mind, here’s some examples of how different firms and leaders have made the idea of getting out there or ‘going to the gemba’ make sense for their business:

  • Whilst he was CEO of Tesco’s, Sir Terry Leahy reputedly spent spent up to 40% of his time talking to customers in different stores around the country. On his watch, he turned Tesco’s from Britain’s third biggest supermarket into the world’s fourth biggest food retailer in just over a decade. After he stepped down in 2010, his successors deviated from this approach and that is credited with leading to many of Tesco’s problems in 2014 and 2015.
  • Pauline Wilson, Operations Director of Virgin Holidays, before embarking on a recent customer experience transformation programme went undercover with her Marketing Director on one of their own holidays. At a recent conference, she explained that whilst Virgin has no shortage of great people with great ideas, going undercover gave them huge insights and visceral feel for what their customers actually experience.
  • Andrew Lawson, Chief Product Officer of, a UK online personal finance peer-to-peer lending company, in a recent interview explained that in order to drive their customer obsession they bring customers into their offices and they observe them going through the actual experience of investing money, withdrawing it or taking out a loan etc. This practice has been incredibly powerful in terms of driving their culture of customer obsession. Andrew explains that “It’s incredibly powerful and motivating when you see someone struggle with something that you ‘own’”.

What these examples show is that the ‘gemba’ will be different for different types of business and it is up to leaders to interpret where their ‘real place’ is.

However, one thing is for sure, whether you go to it or bring it to you there is value, difference, motivation and insight in doing so.

But, beware.

There will be many professionals and leaders reading this that will be saying something like “I/We already do that…”.

The only question I would ask is: Are you really?

The reason I say this is that I remember working with the leadership team of a major coffee retailer recently where we discussed this and they said that they spent a lot of timing visiting their stores and did this on a regular basis.

However, when pressed they conceded that their visits were mostly spent working on their laptops or making business calls rather than really engaging with the experience.

So, if you are going to do it, do it right, pay attention and be present. Do that and there is no telling what you will learn and what fantastic insights you will gain.

This post was originally published on
Photo Credit: erokism Flickr via Compfight cc

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Adrian Swinscoe
Adrian Swinscoe brings over 25 years experience to focusing on helping companies large and small develop and implement customer focused, sustainable growth strategies.


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