Genchi Genbutsu: The most powerful technique we know
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Last updated: January 2020
We use Genchi Genbutsu all the time. (No technique has led us into more ridiculous situations.) But we’ve never written more than a paragraph about it on our website.
So we’ve decided to do something slightly odd: The following article is the “Genchi Genbutsu” section from our in-house training program.
現地現物 (pronounced “Genchi Genbutsu”) is Japanese for “Go and See.”
The phrase, which was evangelized by Toyota’s Taiichi Ohno, is perhaps best understood to mean…
“Go to the real place and see for yourself.”
Once you become aware of Genchi Genbutsu, you’ll be amazed how often you can use it to solve problems. You’ll also wince when you notice those around you failing to apply it. We use it continually, and it’s the most powerful technique we know—not just for conversion rate optimization, or for business, but for doing anything.
The real place is rarely in a slide deck, an Excel spreadsheet, or a boardroom, even though that’s where most business people spend their time. So where is it?
- If you’re discussing a machine, the real place is the machine, so go to it.
- If you’re discussing a person, the real place is likely to be the person, so speak to them.
- If you’re discussing data, the real place is the raw data, so take a look at it.
You get an incredible competitive advantage when you’re the first person to go to the real place. Something magical happens. You get to see reality. Which is useful, because reality is where the problem exists. And reality is where the solution will lie.
Six reasons people don’t go to the real place
So what’s stopping you from going to the real place? If you’re like most people, here are the reasons:
1. You think you’re too busy to spend time at the real place
It’s tempting to think you’re too busy. It’s tempting to want summary reports. Unfortunately, summary reports are the map, not the territory. (Or, as Alan Watts put it, “the menu is not the meal.”) The real place is the territory (or the meal).
The real place tends to be less summarized, but higher bandwidth. So even though one conversation with a visitor might take you longer than viewing a report that summarises the views of a thousand visitors, the high bandwidth of that one conversation will teach you things no summary report could.
2: It can be hard to identify where the real place is
It’s not always obvious where the real place is. If you’re trying to improve the user interface of a website, for example, where is the real place?
The answer is: it’s inside the heads of the visitors when they are using the website. (More specifically, it’s the visitors, their devices, the interaction between them, and their environment.)
3. The real place is often hard to get to
Even if you know where the real place is, it’s often not easy to get there. It’s almost certainly not where you are now. It usually involves moving to somewhere you have never been. To go there, you often need to get permission.
4. The ideal real place may not exist
If you’ve read our book, Making Websites Win, you’ll recall how we opened Japan’s first Nokia Store. We were selling Nokia phones online to Japanese travelers, and recognized that the ideal real place would be wherever people sell phones to travelers face to face. No such place existed. So when we were given the chance to open the store, we jumped at the opportunity.
On another occasion, for the same reason, we took our prototype products to a flea market to get some instant feedback.
In both cases, we got loads of face-to-face experience with real prospects.
Another way you can create the real place is by carrying out user-tests. By asking a user to complete a task, you are asking them to simulate the real place, without you having to go to their home.
If your ideal real place exists only in theory, recognize how valuable it could be, and work out how you can create it.
5. The real place may exist only in the future
If you’re creating something new, your work may be weeks or months away from getting to its destination, the real place. If so, you need to move the destination (or a simulation of it) into the present. We did that when we designed the hardcover version of our book. The book printers had given us a PDF template that contained solid red lines to indicate the edges of the cover and spine, and dashed red lines to indicate creases:
Hardcover books are made by wrapping and gluing the printed paper cover around the thick card of the book. How could we be sure that our edges and spacing would look right once they were wrapped around a three-dimensional book? We certainly didn’t want to wait six weeks until the pallets of books arrived from Italy. How could we move the real place into the present?
We found a book on our shelves that was of the same size and thickness that ours would be. We then wrapped our printed cover design around it and stuck it in place using a glue stick. Within ten minutes, we were at the real place, from which we could start iterating.
It immediately became apparent that the text didn’t align correctly (because the deep crease at the hinge moved the image on the front cover to the left). We also realized that the text on the cover was too big. We created a second version that was much better, and which became the final book design.
We applied the same technique when we created the thumbnail image of our book’s cover for Amazon. Because about a hundred times more people see the book’s thumbnail than the book itself, we treated the thumbnail as a high priority.
We mocked up what the book would look like on an Amazon search-results page, and realized that the text was too small. So we enlarged the title—and got rid of the smaller text. The new thumbnail design is different from the actual book cover, but it works better.
6. The real place is often uncomfortable—or painful
When you’re selling a fitness program, actually following the program is much more physically uncomfortable than just reading its description.
Spending a day at a call-center speaking with customer-support team members you’ve never met is embarrassing compared to spending a day reading Google Analytics reports.
Speaking with a frustrated customer is confrontational compared to reading a customer satisfaction report.
The real place’s benefit—its high bandwidth—is often a cause of mental overwhelm. Because if you’re not a coder, lawyer, or technical writer, it can be overwhelming to read code, legal documents, or technical manuals. Don’t worry about it. Trust that your subconscious brain will handle this immersion much better than your panicking conscious brain thinks is possible.
Discovering you’re wrong
The real place tells you the truth—and so it gives you the pain of realizing you’re wrong. If your designs are bad, the real place will tell you. It gives you hard truths, fast. It hurts. It can make you furious, and it can make you want to cry. It’s upsetting to hear your last month of work being criticized.
But here’s a trick: expect to be wrong, don’t take it personally. And when the real place hits you in the face, accept that you’re wrong wholeheartedly, and the pain goes away immediately. (Just try it.)
It’s impossible to excel without accepting loads of negative feedback. Many successful people mention it:
“They won’t always be right, but I find the single biggest error people make is to ignore constructive, negative feedback.”—Elon Musk (founder of PayPal, Tesla Motors and SpaceX)
“Critical feedback is the breakfast of champions. Defensiveness is the dinner of losers.”—Dharmesh Shah, Hubspot
“If you can’t handle brutal criticism, don’t start a company, because your success will be largely based on your ability to internalize it.”—Jason Calacanis
In most companies, being wrong is a reason for embarrassment. So the staff members live in fear of the truth. In our company, it’s fine to be wrong—it’s part of everyone’s daily routine, and it’s essential for improvement.
Finding all the ways you’re wrong is your duty—and your opportunity.
Start applying Genchi Genbutsu today
By carrying out Genchi Genbutsu, you grow as a person. You leapfrog all the people who don’t go to the real place. You become one of the few people who reap its rewards. And its rewards are great.
What are you working on today?
What’s the real place?
What’s stopping you from going to it?
And how soon can you go there?
This article is one of a series that began here. You’ll find loads of great examples of Genchi Genbutsu in “The stories that inspire us to apply Genchi Genbutsu.”
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