top of page

Genchi Genbutsu

"If we take care of our people, they will take care of our customers, and the customers will come back." That has been the motto of Marriott Hotels since its humble beginning as a nine-stool root beer stand in 1927.

Today, they are one of the largest hotel organizations in the world, with over six thousand locations and nearly $23 billion in yearly revenue. One thing that set this organization apart from many others is their people-centric focus of removing any barriers of status, hierarchy, and power. On almost any day (outside of COVID), you can find Executive Chairman Bill Marriott on the ground floor of Marriott headquarters eating lunch with front-line employees. Recently passed CEO Arne Sorenson spent nearly 200 days a year visiting associates at hotels around the world. These are non-formal visits, where he walked the hotels, greeted the staff, spent time in the kitchen, and visited with guests. Both of these leaders set the example that resonates through the whole organization. Both, in a very dramatic way, are showing that leaders - no matter their position - need to go and see, and in doing so they connect to their staff.

Are you credible?

If you look at almost any research on leadership, you'll find that leaders need to be credible. Credibility helps people connect to you. Sure, you need to care for your employees, you need to ask good questions, to listen, and to show your appreciation. However, if you don't have credibility, all you'll have is a bunch of great friends. Leaders differentiate themselves because, in the words of John C Maxwell, "They know more and they know before." That is, leaders know their stuff. They take the time to thoroughly understand the work, the details of the processes, and the flow. This is not a superficial understanding. You may be able to get away with leading a group with a basic understanding of the work to start with, but that won't last long. To truly be a leader that people are willing to connect to, you must develop competence.

Imagine you're looking for a physical trainer: someone to help you get into better shape. Would you hire a 350lb slob? Of course not. Want to improve your golf game by hiring a pro. Great, but would you hire someone whose only been golfing for 3 months? Nope again. Perhaps you'd like a hunting guide to help you capture some big game. Would you hire an excellent marksman, but who has never shot outside of the range? Again, no. Why? Because for you to trust someone, not only do you need to like them, but you want to know that they know what they are doing. The same goes for leadership. You need to see more and see before.

Gain more credibility through genchi genbutsu

So, how can you? You could read more, and I'd strongly suggest that. You could ask your boss or others that have done similar work some questions and I'm sure you'll get some good information. However, if you really want to become the expert, if you're serious about understanding the work, if you want to truly capture the kind of competency that will allow others to connect with you, do like the leaders at Marriott do - go to where the work is being done.

The Japanese call this genchi genbutsu, or "Go and See."

As I've worked with leaders, one of the greatest roadblocks they face is the further up the line of command they go, the further away from the actual work they get. If you've been on the front lines recently, you know what I'm talking about. An order comes down the chain that we need to start a new process and you think "What nutjob came up with this stupid idea?" Well, it is no nutjob, just a higher-level leader that has unfortunately lost perspective because he or she is too far removed from where the work actually occurs. Don't let this be you. No matter your position or title, be intentional in keeping close to the work by going and seeing.

Standing in a circle can make you credible

Allow me to share an extreme example from the Japanese master of genchi genbutsu himself, Taiichi Ohno and a trainee Teruyuki Minoura as told by Jeffery Liker, author of The Toyota Way.

Minoura: Mr. Ohno wanted us to draw a circle on the floor of a plant and then we were told, "Stand in that and watch the process and think for yourself" and he didn't even give you any hint of what to watch for.

Liker: How long did you stay in the circle?

Minoura: Eight hours!

Liker: Eight hours?!

Minoura: In the morning Mr. Ohno came to request that I stay in the circle until supper and after that Mr. Ohno came to check and asked me what I was seeing. And of course, I answered, "There were so many problems with the process…" But Mr. Ohno didn't hear. He was just looking.

Liker: And what happened at the end of the day?

Minoura: It was dinner time. He came to see me. He didn't take any time to give any feedback. He just said gently, "Go home."

While Mr. Ohno's style would probably not work in most plants or organizations, his determination to help his current and future leaders to understand the work by "go and see" is something that we can all learn from.

Could you imagine standing in a circle watching a process for over 8 hours? Most of us think that doing so for only 30 minutes would be absurd. However, could you imagine how much you'd know and understand about that process? Could you imagine the credibility you could gain? Could you imagine the new ideas and thoughts for improvement that could come to your mind?

How can you go and see with your staff?

In my third year of serving as a principal, the office staff and I took a course on office efficiency. The main goal of this course was to create more efficient processes and to free up my time. Doing so would allow me to spend more time with teachers. The instructor asked us to spend 2 full days doing nothing but sitting near our secretaries and taking notes. I had thought that I knew what our secretaries did each day. Besides, my office was right next to theirs and I had large glass windows that allowed me to see at all times what was going on. Yet, the instructor insisted that I take the time to watch them do their work. So, I arranged my schedule and spend all Monday and Thursday simply watching. Boy, did I learn a lot!

First, the secretaries were obviously nervous. They too didn't see the point in me watching them all day. However, I had a good relationship with them and they knew I was doing this to help us understand how to be more efficient, not to find ways to criticize their work. Second, although I had a good idea of the major processes that our secretaries took care of each day, I had no idea how many little things they did. The questions from teachers, the phone calls from parents, the students and their many, many requests. Truly, my eyes were opened through this experience. From that point forward I had a much greater understanding and much greater respect for their work. Interestingly, since I knew their work better, we made better decisions in running the school and they saw it. Because of this, there was a stronger connection between our secretaries and myself.

Too often we assume that we know what is going on. Too often we assume that we understand the work. Too often we rely upon others for an understanding of what's happening. Even if you have done the work before, it's imperative that we stop and "go and see" so that we can truly understand.

Bryan Geary and Carlton Sorrell in their book On the Plant Floor (a great book by the way), state this: "Actively remaining engaged will require a considerable amount of time on the plant floor. This will reduce the number of meetings, conference calls, and time in the office sitting on your blessed assurance." They suggest that if you are more comfortable sitting in your office than you are walking the floor, then you've got your priorities backwards. Unfortunately, many leaders are more comfortable in their offices. Taking time to walk the floor will make you an uncommon leader and will help you build the competence that people need to see to connect with you.

If you think this is just going to happen, good luck. It's not. We must be intentional in our genchi genbutsu. When leading a school, I'd purposely scheduled 4-hour chunks of time twice a week with nothing on the agenda but to "go and see." That is, I sat in classrooms, observed teachers, watch the lunchroom, talked to students, did bus duty, and so on. Certainly, it was difficult to prioritize this as there were many distractions that tried to interfere with my observations, but I was determined to really understand what was going on so I had to "go and see."

80 views0 comments


bottom of page