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What's your Genba?

In the last article, I mentioned Toyota's production principal Genchi Genbutsu. It's connected to another of their core principals called Genba.

Genba or Gemba (English: The real place, the place where the actual work is done): Now adapted in management terminology to mean the ‘workplace’ or the place where value is added. In manufacturing, it usually refers to the shop floor.
In the book, the principle of Genba described in more details. One of the most interesting thing about Genba - it's not only about the physical place where the work is done but also about who's doing the work. Toyota delegates a lot of autonomy to make decisions to people who are actually doing the work. At the genba.

Product organisations could learn a lot by applying this principle. We hear a lot about the best product teams being empowered product teams. And one of the key ingredients of an empowered product team is ownership and responsibility for making decisions.

What is our genba? 

A product manager role is super diverse. We could be doing a dozen different things and that’s even before the first, morning coffee. And yet if we follow the genba principle to its extreme and try to answer where is our primary place of work, where we add the most value, it has to be right near our customers. It is PMs primary job to discover problems and for that, we need to be as close as we can to our customers.

But other roles could discover customer’s problems as well, you say. Like UX people or designers or support folks. Yes, indeed, everyone could discover a problem. But product managers are getting paid to make decisions about the problem a company should focus on. We never have enough time or resources to pursue every opportunity. Hence we need to prioritise. PMs need to prioritise.

Most product managers should be aware of this classic divide in responsibilities on a typical product team.

The line of our responsibilities is usually drawn depending on the maturity of a team we’re working with. Strong engineering team will take the whole “what” and “how” domains. They wouldn’t need detailed specs or elaborate prototypes. You give them a problem, give them the relevant context about customers and then magic happens. You see a solution evolving, it might be different from what you originally had in mind, but it’s valuable and your customers love it.

In a less experienced team, a PM might be involved more into “what” and sometimes even a bit in “how”. They might discuss particular design decisions with designers or some implementation aspects with engineers.

But we always should be careful about these talks to remain consultations. We still want engineers to take implementation decisions and designers to take experience decisions. It’s their genba, they are closest to that work and should own it.

Our genba is “why”, it’s talking to customers, it’s discovering and prioritising problems. That’s why we repeat for years about the importance of regular customer research. First-hand research. It’s cool to have UX or designated research departments, it usually means you can discover many more problems. But there is a catch, obviously. If you don’t talk to customers directly you risk losing your genba. Not literally (although sometimes literally). When your teammates or your leaders go to the genba and want to talk to the one doing the work on customer problems - they should come to you. If that’s not you - you might want to review where your focus is.

Genba is an interesting concept. It’s the place where the actual work happens. It’s where people go to see the professionals at work. People at the genba are the best positioned to make decisions about their work. PMs' genba is next to their customers, discovering and prioritising their problems. PMs that do their research directly are much better positioned to make good product decisions. Genba principle made Toyota enormously successful and could help other businesses improve.

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