Very quickly, you end up in an ivory tower, working with information that has been carefully filtered for your ears only and bears very little relation to reality. How can you ever run a business on all the wrong facts? You need to go to the Gemba.
The Gemba (or Genba) is a Japanese word meaning “the actual place”. In business, that is the actual place where value is created, where the work is done. Only there can you both understand and improve the value the company is creating and what problems and shortfalls there are. While Gemba is known as part of the lean manufacturing process, Gemba is understood best in the customer service context.
A Gemba will be found in different areas of businesses. A Gemba will be anywhere that interacts directly with the customer. Therefore, a Gemba might be a retail outlet, a customer service department or a sales department, but part of Gemba is ensuring all departments collaborate on service.
In fully understanding the workings within your Gemba, you get to have first-hand knowledge of how customers are being served, if their needs are being met, and if customer service is operating as it should. The result is a better understanding of the customer and the ability to create a customer-centric culture.
If we look at the five principles involved, we can then look at some companies who use them in reality:
- To observe the overall customer experience and areas needing improving, studying both customer and employee behaviour.
- To engage with both sides, the customers and front-line staff, listen, and understand where they are coming from.
- To implement continuous improvements from what you have learned.
- To empower your team to take ownership of the improvements, contributing to them.
- To foster collaboration between all the different departments involved.
When ideating a business concept, we know the best possible course of action is to talk to as many potential customers as possible. But too often we stop there. Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber decided he needed to find out why the company was facing criticism for poor driver experiences and ran an investigation he named Project Boomerang. Khosrowshahi spent several months working undercover as a driver for Uber in San Francisco. He discovered that drivers faced penalties if they turned down rides, rudeness from the passengers, and technical glitches in Uber’s app. This knowledge helped him re-shape the business with information that would have been unlikely to unearth in a CEO’s office.
The late Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos was famed for his obsession with creating a customer-centric philosophy. Even his book was entitled “Delivering Happiness”. Zappos quickly became known for the culture he created. Hsieh wanted to deliver happiness to all stakeholders which included delivering the best in customer service and customer experience. If people were happy, they would embrace the company values and the vision would automatically follow. Hsieh believed the only way to achieve outstanding customer service was for every employee to live it, and that had to be led from the top. Therefore, Hsieh would take customer service calls and encouraged executives at every level to spend time on the customer service phone lines to truly get to know the customers, and what was (and wasn’t) working.
The Timpson Group also believes that happy people and a culture based on kindness and trust create the best service. They also give the people running their stores immense amounts of autonomy as to how this was achieved to each person. John Timpson believed it to be critical to meet the people making the money for the business and would visit twenty or so outlets in a day, spending a short time with each person. Incredibly, he claimed that he could learn far more about the business from this approach than looking at figures and thus spent his time accordingly.
Other well-known name CEOs with a hands-on approach include Richard Branson, who is known to personally respond to customer correspondence and address any issues in person. Jeff Bezos was also known to respond to complaints in person in Amazon’s early years, liaising with the relevant departments to fully understand the issue. Amazon’s understanding of what worked for the customer helped Amazon become the colossal success it is today.
These CEOs are all stratospherically successful, yet that success was not achieved from being detached up in the ivory tower of the CEOs office. They got down, got dirty, knew what was really going on at the coal face. They then created cultures where people got involved at every level, working on customer-centric, continual improvement. The hands-on approach can have a lot to recommend it.