The Way of Genchi Genbutsu Is Ingrained in a Country’s Culture

It is easy to point to dramatic examples of genchi genbutsu, like driving all over North America to develop the Sienna minivan or standing in a circle all day in the factory, but what is most important is how it becomes incorporated into the collective psyche of all employees. It is really part of the culture when it simply becomes the natural way of doing things. Though this is the Toyota Way in Japan, Toyota must work hard to implement it in its overseas operations. For example, Bruce Brownlee, general manager of external affairs for the Toyota Technical Center, is one of the few American members of the management staff who grew up in Japan and speaks Japanese fluently. He explains:

We use genchi genbutsu more casually outside of engineering. For example, when I organize a press event at a hotel, I always take time to go in advance and look at the hotel. I want to understand what to expect. Often there are surprises and we want to solve the problems in advance. Or, if there is an important dinner, say for a visiting director, I will go to the restaurant in advance and perhaps eat there. We may ask to see the kitchen. In one case, a highly rated restaurant did not have a quiet back room where we could meet and the service was not what it was reputed to be, so we went to a different restaurant. When Dr. Saito (senior executive of R&D) visited, he wanted to see the Getty Museum, so we checked it out in advance. We wanted to understand exactly what to expect.

Earlier in the chapter, I quoted Yamashina, who lamented that “within the Toyota organization in North America, we are still just going and seeing” (genchi genbutsu). Obviously, building a Toyota Way culture overseas is a slow process and Toyota works diligently on it. But are they in any way hampered by the American culture? Interestingly, there is some evidence that they may be, if you look at a fascinating article by Richard E. Nisbett of the University of Michigan, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently ... and Why. The article compares East Asians (Korea, China, and Japan) and Westerners (Europe, United Kingdom, and North America). A series of experiments provide concrete evidence that, when looking at the same scene, what Westerners typically see are general categories of objects at a somewhat superficial level, while Asians typically see objects and relationships between objects at a more detailed level.

In one study, Japanese and American students at the University of Michigan were briefly shown pictures of aquariums that contained fish, frogs, and the usual plants, rocks, etc. He then asked them to recall what they had seen. The Japanese remembered 60% more background elements than did the American students and referred twice as often to relationships involving the background objects (e.g., “the little frog was above the pink rock”).

Nisbett and his associates concluded that “Westerners prefer abstract universal principles; East Asians seek rules appropriate to a situation.”[1] And the East Asians see the same situation in more detail than the Westerners. Now consider Yokoya traveling all over North America to figure out how to redesign the Sienna. If he is experiencing the journey with much greater resolution due to his Japanese heritage and the skills developed in Toyota’s culture of genchi genbutsu, he undoubtedly got a whole lot more out of the trip than a Western engineering project leader would. He was not just “going and seeing,” but understanding the situation at a very deep level and using this deep understanding to make decisions about the direction of the next Sienna minivan.

The implication of Toyota applying Principle 12: Go and see for yourself to thoroughly understand the situation (genchi genbutsu) for learning overseas is both exciting and a bit scary. Thinking through the fine details of strategy and operations is clearly central to the culture that has helped Toyota become one of the world’s most successful companies. So the Toyota Way principles are something every company should try to learn from and apply. However, if some of these principles are more truly hardwired into the East Asian cultural DNA, it will be more difficult for Westerners to emulate. Or, at least it will require greater effort and practice for Westerners to get really good at it.

We will return to this theme in the Continuously Solving Root Problems Drives Organizational Learning of the article when we consider what companies can learn from the Toyota Way. In the meantime, we have set the stage for examining more closely in the next two chapters how Toyota uses the detailed knowledge that comes from genchi genbutsu to make carefully reasoned decisions and ultimately become a true learning organization.