genba shugi Japanese manufacturing

The Japanese expatriate manager at the factory in Kentucky received a report from his American subordinate about a problem on the production line, and asked, “Did you go to the spot?”  The American subordinate looked puzzled.  “What spot?” he asked.

The Japanese manager had used the word “spot” in an attempt to communicate the concept of genba shugi.  He was wondering if his subordinate had gone himself to the place where the problem occurred, to see with his own eyes.  However in English the word spot did not fully capture that meaning, and the American subordinate was confused.

There is no neat and easy way to convey the meaning of the word genba in English; there is no exact parallel.  Some sort of phrase is always required.  One possible way to do it is to simply say “the plant floor” or “the manufacturing line,” which emphasizes the sense of genba as the place where the actual production work is taking place.  If the company is a service industry, the genba might be “where employees are interacting directly with customers.”  In cases where the genba indicates the location where something took place, one can also use phrases such as “the place where the problem happened” or “the spot where the defect occurred.”  For some reason, when I want to translate the word genba into English, the colloquial phrase “where the rubber hits the road,” meaning where the place where things really happen, always springs to mind.  I also tend to think of “the scene of the crime,” but actually that phrase is probably more suited to a murder mystery novel than to a business situation.

Many Japanese manufacturing managers working overseas complain that the locally-hired managers and engineers who report to them spend too much time at their desks in the office, and not enough time out on the manufacturing floor.  In many cultures, including the U.S., this attitude is in part due to a sort of class consciousness, a feeling among managers and engineers that their white collar jobs are to be done in a clean office rather than the dirty, noisy factory.  Yet from the Japanese point of view, it’s important to see the situation for oneself.  This problem-solving approach can be said to be one of the strengths of Japanese manufacturing methods.

In order to inculcate locally hired managers with genba shugi, the practice of going to investigate things firsthand rather than relying on reports from others, it is necessary to do some education and change habits.  The more that such efforts can fit into the local culture, the better.  Soon after the Tom Cruise movie Jerry Maguire made “Show me the money!” a household phrase in the U.S., one of my clients, a Japanese-owned factory in the U.S., did something very clever.  As part of a campaign to encourage employees to make fact-based decisions, buttons were distributed to everyone that read “Show me the data!”  The idea was to make employees feel more comfortable challenging statements made by others, and seeing things for oneself. 

This reminds me of the un-official state motto for Missouri, which is “show me.” The phrase was first used by Missouri’s U.S. Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, who served in the United States House of Representatives from 1897 to 1903. In an 1899 speech he declared, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”  Perhaps it can be said that all Japanese businesspeople who believe in genba shugi are Missourians at heart.

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