Toyota has always believed that you need to go see something for yourself before you're able to understand a situation, to make the best decision possible. Here's why.
At Toyota, the concept of genchi genbutsu is ingrained into the culture, which Toyota themselves have translated to mean: ‘go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus and achieve goals at our best speed’.
This marks a key difference between Western and Japanese management styles. When there is a problem, a Western manager will diagnose and make decisions from a distance via reports, where a Toyota manager will go to the factory floor and see it for themselves.
One of the most extreme, but most successful examples of genchi genbutsu would be the story of Yuji Yokoya, a Toyota engineer who was responsible for the redesign of the Sienna minivan for the Americas in the early 2000s. Instead of relying on customer focus groups and reports, Yokoya decided he needed to experience driving through Canada, Mexico and the USA.
Over two years he drove more than 85,000 km, forcing him to experience every condition that North America could throw at him, from windy, icy streets, to urban centres, and in places where roads barely existed. In a sense, he became the customer, giving him many insights:
- Crossing the Mississippi River by bridge, Yokoya noted that the Sienna's crosswind stability needed improvement. He observed excessive steering drift while traversing gravel roads in Alaska, and the need for a tighter turning radius along the crowded streets in Santa Fe. Driving through Glacier National Park, he decided the handling needed to be crisper. He also made an all-wheel-drive option a priority, along with more interior space and cargo flexibility.
Finally, he decided that the new Sienna would have to be a minivan that families, and especially kids, could live in for extended periods of time. Upgrading seat quality became a priority, along with “kid friendly” features such as a roll-down window for second-row passengers, an optional DVD entertainment centre and a conversation mirror so parents could monitor what was going on in the back seat.1
By using genchi genbutsu, Yokoya learned about what the customer needed firsthand, and was able to build something truly customer centric. Seeing things first hand is key to making sure a leader truly understands the situation, enabling them to make better fact and experience based decisions.