"Go see, ask why, show respect." The words of Toyota chairman Fujio Cho have become renowned as the basic lean principles on which to build and run a business.

The concept here revolves around the importance of business leaders getting up from their desks and leaving their offices to observe firsthand what is really happening in the “gemba” — the location where the work actually takes place.

Suggestions Wanted

Cho’s business philosophy advocates asking questions and encouraging input from the front-line teams who create real value through their direct dealings with products, services and customers. To do so underscores Cho’s respect for those workers, the work they are doing and their opinions and suggestions for improvements.   

It may seem obvious that only when you see processes in action in their real environments can opportunities to improve those processes become apparent. However, all too often, businesses fail to apply this simple, but highly effective principle.   

Lessons from the DMV

Let me cite a recent experience of mine when I needed to renew my driver’s license. In theory, this should have been a pretty straightforward process. All I needed was a license renewal form, my ID, a quick eyesight test, a new photo taken and then to pay the fees. The form took less than a minute to complete and the process at the counter took less than five.

So why did the whole thing take me more than an hour?

Only by going out and observing would the real bottleneck become clear. After my initially quick start, customers — including me — had to stand in line waiting for one clerk to assist more than two dozen people.

Even more frustrating than the delay itself was watching two employees with different signs above their counters stand by idly because no one was lining up for their particular services.  Making people wait in long, slow lines while other staff who can potentially help stand by idly is simply unacceptable, but unfortunately far too common.  

Voting with Tweets & Feet

That’s not to say there shouldn’t be rules and that teams shouldn’t have specific responsibilities. But in most businesses, customers have a choice. If they feel like they’re being taken for granted or if obvious improvement suggestions are routinely ignored, they will vote with their feet and their wallets and find a competitor who offers better service.  And worse, they’ll probably tell their friends and social media connections all about their terrible experiences.

So how can you show respect for both your workers and your customers as Mr. Cho advises?

Empower Your Front-Line Staff

Businesses need to empower their front-line staff. For many organizations, this can translate into a profound cultural shift. Teams need to be encouraged not only to provide input and speak up when they see processes that can be improved but to know that they can actually apply their ideas to improve processes as they see fit, such as pitching in to speed up the line at the DMV.

Empowering staff in that way can be threatening to some organizations, perhaps triggering a fear of regressing to uncontrolled, inconsistent process execution. That’s why it’s important to have the right people involved and aware of the process changes, as well as a means to lock in the improvements for the future.

Change is Good

A centralized process repository can provide that platform for knowledge sharing, collaboration and change management. When a base of process knowledge exists that is both useful and changeable, it encourages a culture where the process owners feel more involved in decision-making. That, in turn, empowers both innovation and a departure from the mindset of “we do it this way because that’s the way it has always been done.”

Fostering a culture of innovation can have a tremendous impact on job satisfaction and loyalty. Empowered employees feel a greater sense of ownership over the level of service they provide, so these improved rates of satisfaction and loyalty flow through to customers.

Appreciate Your Customers

And recognizing that an organization feels a customer’s pain or is — at the very least — trying to be responsive makes customers feel appreciated. Ultimately, this effort creates a stronger relationship and increased loyalty towards your brand.

The ideas and improvements that drive innovation are already there and your teams and customers see them firsthand every day. You just need to develop a culture that recognizes the value of front-line teams spotting opportunities, and enables them to share and collaborate so to implement improvements themselves.

Go see, ask why, show respect.

Title image by Samuel Castro