Genchi Genbutsu for Instructional Designers

June 12, 2008

Genchi genbutsu is a key concept in the Toyota Production System and means “go and see for yourself.”  The idea is that instead of simply reading a report about a problem or talking about it in a conference room, you should actually go to the place where the problem is occurring and observe the situation for yourself. Practicing genchi genbutsu is the best way to truly understand a problem. 

A No-Brainer for Instructional Designers?  Well, I’m not so sure. A lot of times, we first hear about performance problems in a meeting of some sort, or perhaps by reading a proposal or report that describes why a particular training solution is necessary. Once the project starts, we might review existing training or other documentation, and maybe conduct a few expert interviews. In other words, we pretty much rely on other people describing the problem. Then we design training to “fix” the problem, although we are really quite removed from it.  Sound familiar?

Well, in lean thinking, that’s not kosher. Problem-solvers are encouraged to go to the gemba, the Japanese word for “actual place.” What if instructional designers practiced genchi genbutsu as a routine part of doing our work. Instead of just taking the word of client stakeholders and company data, we need to go to the gemba and observe the situation ourselves. This will result in better and more authentic training.

Several years ago, I was involved with developing e-learning on kitchen safety for a retail restaurant client. The instructional design team relied on company documentation and SME interviews. But it would have been better to actually go and watch a typical kitchen where the reported problems were occurring. It would have been even better to go and do the same job in the same location.

This doesn’t mean we have to do a bunch of research to validate previous research. The point is that by directly observing, you learn in a holistic way than by learning about a problem second hand. Sometimes you don’t even have to open your mouth. Just open your eyes and look.

  • Designing a customer service skills course for call center employees? Go to the call center: watch them at work and listen in on their calls.
  • Wondering how to improve machine worker skills? Don’t rely on a manager’s report. Go to the shop floor and watch. 


Here’s the bottom line for workplace learning folks: Practicing genchi genbutsu will not only help you garner keener insights, it will also help you connect to your end users (the real customer) at their level, in their language. In turn, you will develop more relevant and effective training.