Gemba is a Japanese term for “the real place” or in management terms “where the important action takes place.” The most common use of the term “gemba,” in a management context, is with respect to defining where the important work is done within an organization. Deming organizations, and lean organizations, have managers that spend their time at the gemba – not behind their desks or in meetings (many do have some meetings away from the gemba, but they push to get to the gemba as much as possible).
I very much like the concept of the customer, or user, gemba. Employees need to understand how customers actually use their product or service. This understanding is gained by observing the user gemba – observing the user actually using your product or service. It isn’t enough to know how you intend that customers will use your products or services; you have to get out to the gemba of actual customer use and learn what problems your customers use your products to solve.
One obvious way to gain insight from customers, but sadly is not done in far too many organizations, is to have those that work directly with those using your products and services share what they learn with those designing for the organization. But still today, most organizations waste nearly all the insight they could gain from front line staff, customer support personnel, salespeople, and others that deal directly with those using their products and services.
One obvious sign of how little an organization cares about customers, is when they outsource customer service call centers (technical support etc.) to low cost bidders and focus on things like number of calls answered per hour instead of gaining insight into their customers. These organizations should have a dual purpose: helping the customer with their current issue and, as importantly, providing feedback to help the organization improve.
While customer support over the phone is far from seeing the customer use the product at the gemba yourself, it is still a direct report on the gemba (the customer describing exactly what problem they are having). This is valuable user gemba information, even if it is significantly less useful than direct observation.
The consumer is the most important part of the production line. Quality should be aimed at the needs of the customer, present and future.
W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis, page 5.
Listening to and appreciating the voice of the customer is critical to understanding how to improve to better meet customers’ needs and to innovate to provide customers with new solutions they might not even realize they want. It is not uncommon for the customer to fail to “voice” (speak or write) about their use of your products and services. Watching customers use your products and services lets you capture voice-of-the-customer details that are not verbalized for you by the customer, but that are available if you pay attention. A clear understanding of the actual value you provide is needed to manage continual improvement efforts.