23 September 2006

Gemba/customer visits (a contribution to Wikipedia)

I've decided that Wikipedia probably gets more readers than my blog (yes, really) so I should contribute there where possible. Here's my contribution to the article on Gemba visits. I learned this technique at Sun back in 1998; it was a real eye-opener to sit with open eyes and ears but closed mouth, watching end-users working with Sun products (on that occasion, it was Sun's deskop environment, CDE).

A Gemba visit is often simply called a customer visit. The hallmarks that make it uniquely useful are:

  • the purpose is firstly to observe, occasionally to question, rarely to guide or direct
  • the visit occurs in the context where the product or service is used, which allows direct observation of problems that arise, workarounds that are applied, and capabilities or services that are simply never used
  • sometimes the customer (or client or user) is asked to describe what they are doing while they are doing it; this provides insight into their thought processes as they work, which often reveals differences between their mental model and the model of the developers or providers of the product or service
  • the customer will often express wishes or needs while they are working in context that they would forget or suppress in a different context such as a structured interview or sales meeting
So what happens when you do a Gemba (customer) visit? My advice - prepare to be amazed. The people who develop products work in a closed environment; they share so much (maybe approximate age, education, interests, culture, not to mention information and work experiences) that their mental model of how a product is used is surprisingly out-of-whack with what a real live customer will do.

If for some reason you can't do Gemba visits (e.g. the product is used only in secure environments, or you simply don't know who your real customer is because your distribution channel obscures them), you can do something that may be more or less effective: a structured usability test. It is similar to a Gemba visit in that the customer is observed while using a product or service, but they are doing so in a slightly artificial environment:
  • they may be at your premises rather than their own
  • they are given specific tasks to complete rather than pursuing their own goals
  • there may be certain constraints, such as to try to complete a task in a given time or to do as many of a list of tasks as possible
  • they may be video-taped for later analysis by a wider group
So tell me - how do you go about researching how to improve your company's product or service?

1 comment:

chen said...

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