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See You in Gemba

A team spends months on improving customer-facing branch processes of a bank. After benchmarking with sister companies across the world and after carefully mapping out process steps they come up with an improved flow that drastically reduces the processing time for branch customers. It surely looks like a nice success story. However, they get devastating feedback from the customers whilst piloting the solution in five branches. Why?  

Because most customers do not want to be rushed. Relationship built through the “monthly chat with my banker” when they pick up their pension is at risk. And with it the account.

A design group of a large power tool company is tasked to come up with a new generation of Chiselling Hammers that is able to keep the ever-increasing competition under control. Reduced weight and increase in power with less vibration and noise are some of the main focus areas. They proudly present a set of prototypes to the management and get the green light for going to Gemba – the place of application. The evaluation by a group of independent craftsmen who get the chance to compare the new model with four competitor tools under real condition – breaking down walls and removing tiles – unveils new insights. Although all specifications of the new design are better, the craftsmen choose the competitor product. Why? Because they perceive hammers with reduced noise and vibration level as less powerful.

Gemba is the place where your product or service is received and applied. In Japanese Gemba means “the real place” or “the crime scene”. You cannot learn about the Moment of Truth, the usage of your offering and how well you are meeting customers’ expectations by conducting an annual survey or by issuing some evaluation forms. CEOs like American Express’ Kenneth Chenault know about this. He is said to spend time in American Express call centres to pick up calls from customers and listen to their requests. He surely cannot change the customer service level by answering some calls every now and then. However, he walks the talk. As a leader, he knows how important it is to observe and focus on what is critical to customers during the Moment of Truth. And he expects his employees to “have it in their DNA”.


Relying on outdated survey results, a few anecdotes or complaints in the search for customer needs is not enough to get the start right. Part of the reason is that the customers often cannot even express or explain what they want or desire. Sometimes, what they want is not exactly what they need. This is not the customers’ fault. Our responsibility is it to help our customers by translating vague expressions into service standards. If we cannot, our competitors most likely will.

Do not spend too much time in the meeting room when exploring the Voice of the Customer. Go out, listen and observe. There will most likely be some surprises that can make a differ-ence for your organisation on the quest to serve your customers well. And, you know that “Going to Gemba” is part of the DNA when movements towards Organisational Excellence start with the customer.

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