Inspect and adapt, with respect

Posted on August 2, 2021.

If you’ve spent any time with the Lean or Agile community you’ve heard the phrase “go to the gemba.” Ask what it means and you’ll get a fairly consistent answer of “go to where the work is being done and observe.” Gemba literally translates from Japanese into “actual place.” In other words, instead of making a series of assumptions about what’s happening and why, go and see for yourself. Lean practitioners and Agile coaches regularly visit the teams they work with, their places of work and observe how work gets done looking for opportunities for improvement (kaizen).

Product designers and researchers also practice this. While they may not use Lean language like “go to the gemba” they’ve advocated for decades to eschew assumptions about why customers and users behave in certain ways with our products and services and, instead, to go and see this behavior first hand. Observer, take notes, ask questions and draw some conclusions about how to iterate the product forward. One can easily argue this is standard user experience design practice.

We forgot one thing

I recently went back to read John Shook’s article over at about going to the gemba and there was a part of the process that seems to get less frequently repeated with the phrase “go and see.” Shook notes that the original phrase from Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho stated, “Go see, ask why, show respect.” We don’t talk a lot about that last part — show respect. And it’s critical to the success of any change or transformation initiative we undertake with our teams.

The overwhelming majority of our teams, leaders and customers have good intentions. They want to be successful. They want to come to work every day, do good work, feel productive and effective and help the company be successful. In the case of customers they want to make themselves successful. The mere act of showing up to observe a worker or customer in their “actual place” of work creates tension. Many folks believe that if you’re there to observe them they must be doing something wrong. The same goes for customers. I’ve lost count of how many participants in usability tests have apologized for their inability to complete a task.

As change agents — whether you’re designing a product, transforming an organization, implementing OKRs, coaching Agile teams, etc — it is imperative that we show respect to the people we work with and influence. We must default to a point of view that these folks are doing their best and make it clear to them that we are there to make them even more successful.

We’re not there to make them feel stupid or useless. We’re not there to point out their mistakes. Instead we’re there to understand the root cause for the current behavior and work with them to improve their efficiency, productivity and customer-centricity. Their insight is invaluable. They know the most about their place of work, it’s challenges and opportunities for improvement. The answers you’re seeking as a change agent are likely somewhere within their expertise, knowledge and experience.

By treating our teams, coachees and customers with respect we learn from them and earn their trust. When it comes time to make change that trust enables us to challenge current practices and behaviors. It buys us the political capital to propose new ways of working that may initially be uncomfortable for them but because we’ve treated them with respect they afford us the opportunity to run our next experiment.

Going to the gemba is critical to building better teams, organizations and products. However, coming into these situations with the attitude that we know best and the people we’re trying to change couldn’t do it without us ensures our transformation efforts will meet with resistance and likely not succeed.

The next time you kick off a new change program or new way of working, engage the teams with respect and understand why things work the way they do now. As Shook said in his article, “Before we make product, we make people.”