“Genchi genbutsu” and continuous improvement

When one wants to learn more about “lean”, then it is almost impossoible to avoid the ‘Toyota way’. The Japanese car manufacturer has a strong reputation when it comes to continuous improvement (“kaizen“) and ‘lean’ manufacturing. Eric Ries has made a quite a name for himself by applying the ‘lean’ methodology to startups, with many people in the digital landscape now talking about ‘metrics’ and ‘learning experiments’.

In the book “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement”, Jeffrey Liker and James Franz break down the main principles and practices which underpin Toyota’s continuous drive to learn and improve. The book can roughly be divided up into two parts. In the first part, the Toyota way to continuous improvement is explained from a more theoretical point of view, outlining principles such as “genchi genbutsu” (‘go and see and deeply understand’) and “kata” (a well rehearsed routine that eventually becomes second nature).

The second part of the book contains a number of different case studies of companies that applied Toyota’s approach to continuous development (with varied degress of success). I feel that I have learned the most from the first part of the book, with these being the main things that I picked up on:

  1. It is continuous – Often when European companies pursue ‘lean’ or other improvement practices, they design change programmes with a set lifespan. The main thing that makes Toyota’s approach to improvement stand out is that it is ongoing, applied at at every level of business and driven by a central company vision.
  2. Toyota’s 4P model – Toyota’s approach to continuous improvement is underpinned by the “4 Ps”: (1) philosophy (i.e. long-term thinking), (2) process, (3) people and partners and (4) problem solving. From the examples that “The Toyota way to continuous improvement” provides it becomes clear that these 4 Ps keep coming back in some shape or form in Toyota’s change intitiatives.
  3. “Genchi genbutsu” – Continuous improvement is all about practical problem solving, mainly through going to the “gemba” (‘where the work is done’) and observing. The goal is to really understand the problem(s) and its root cause(s).
  4. PDCA – “Plan-do-check-adjust” (‘PDCA’) is the key mantra which underpins continuous improvement. This comes down to a continuous cycle of assessing problems, developing countermeasures, planning implementation, running the learning experiment, monitoring results and adjusting accordingly (see Fig. 1 below).
  5. Toyota’s application of PDCA – The book describes in great detail the principles which underly continuous improvement. “Learn by trying” is the principle that appeals to me the most, but “constantly finding further opportunities for improvement” and “standardising what works” are in my view just as important for any business.
  6. “Hoshin kanri” – This terms plays an important role in Toyota’s continuous development approach. It means both direction and management control to achieve a business vision. Again, the main thing to point out here is the element of longevity; continuous improvement is driven by a long-term company vision, with strong support at (executive) management level.

Main learning point: I guess long-term persistence is the main message that “The Toyota Way to Continuous Improvement” is trying to convey. One of the reasons that Toyota has been so successful in creating a culture of continuous improvement is its long-term dedication to improvement, constantly trying to engrain this mindset across the organisation. I find it very encouraging to see that numerous Western organisations are now starting to adapt a smilar approach, acheiving ongoing improvement through learning experiments and instilling a ‘perfectionist’ mindset.

Fig. 1 – PDCA Cycle (source: http://www.hci.com.au/hcisite3/toolkit/pdcacycl.htm)

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Rdio vs. Spotify: when it comes to user experience, the first round is for Rdio

Last year I wrote about Rdio, about its affiliate programme and data partnerships respectively. At the time, Rdio was only available in the US and my interaction with its streaming service was therefore limited. I had heard, however, that its user experience design (‘UX’) was great.

I have now had a chance to try Rdio (it recently launched in the UK) and compare it with Spotify (of which I am a premium subscriber). If this was a boxing match, Rdio would win against Spotify in the 1st round. Spotify would have struggled to put a punch in whilst Rdio’s decisive knock out punch would have come in the form of its powerful UX.

This is how the two streaming services compare in my opinion:

  1. Design – I have a got a strong preference for clean, simple design and Rdio comes up trumps in this respect. Whether it is an artist (see screenshot 1), album or track (see screenshot 2), all pages have a very uncluttered layout. Even though I can understand Spotify’s rationale for collating as much artist or product info onto a single page, I feel that Rdio’s pages are more effective. Rdio’s UX design   feels like it has been thought through a lot better.
  2. Social – On Spotify, opportunities to understand what others think of a particular album or track are limited. When I have got my “This is what your friends are listening to in real-time” functionality enabled on Spotify, I tend to ignore it. I think the way in which Rdio have enabled user reviews is again simple but effective (and not a distraction from the main purpose, i.e. to listen to a track or an album – see screenshot 2).
  3. Labels – The main differentiator between between Spotify and Rdio is the ability to filter by labels. Increasingly, users are looking to engage with specific labels. Spotify is tapping into this trend with its label specific apps (I love the “Def Jam at Spotify” app) and services like Drip.fm and Distro.fm are geared towards this. Rdio gets this too: I can follow labels directly and get a good sense of all their releases. For instance, the 4AD Records (see screenshot 3) or Blue Note pages provide a neat overview of their top albums and recent activity.
  4. Nobody is perfect – At a first glance, Rdio’s music catalogue seems smaller than that of Spotify and I would love to see more labels involved with this service. Perhaps it is my perception but the “unavailable” tag seems to be appearing on albums a bit too often. From a UX point of view, there is nothing as frustrating as finding the album you were looking for to then see it marked as unavailable.
Main learning point: Spotify clearly has a ‘first mover’ advantage in the UK, both in terms of its user base and breath of music catalogue. With the right amount of marketing and word of mouth, however, Rdio could be catching up sooner than you think. Rdio’s design is great and opportunities for interaction and discovery have received the right amount of attention by Rdio’s designers. The main thing for Rdio to concentrate on is adding to its catalogue and creating a user base / ecosystem around its service.

Screenshot 1 – Artist page on Rdio

Screenshot 2 – Track page on Rdio

Screenshot 3 – 4 AD Records page on Rdio

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zeebox – the value is in sharing and discovery

Like music, TV is another traditional medium that has gone social. Forget about ‘just’ watching a show on TV’ that is only half the fun nowadays. Watching something on telly is one thing, but the conversation around it on  social media such as Twitter and Facebook is pushing the way in which we consume TV content to a whole other level. zeebox is an app that taps into this trend. It presents itself as “Your TV sidekick” which it tries to do in a number of different ways:

  1. Knowing what you are watching, right now – zeebox will pick up, for example, that I am watching Formula One on Sky Sports 1 and will provide me with all kinds of related info on this programme, of which the “News” tab seems most helpful.
  2. Real time is the key  With an app like zeebox, you want everything to be instant so it lets you invite your friends and start a chat with them whilst you are watching. Similarly, I can view the “Buzz” (i.e. tweets per minute) or “Audience” (popularity figure) for a specific show, both in real time.
  3. “zeetags” to help your discovery – I believe that the big potential of services like zeebox and Fanhattan is in helping users discovering new content. Zeebox will automatically picks up references to things on a show that you happen to be watching or be interested in. For instance, when I’m watching Formula One on telly, zeebox will bring up related tags such as “Fernando Alonso”, which I can then click on to delve into more info about this driver (generated from sources such as Wikipedia and Google). However, the quality of these tags can be improved judging by suggested tags such as “The Netherlands” and “Morocco” when I’m looking into a coverage of an international golf tournament …
  4. Acting as a content ‘hub’ – The idea is that zeebox acts as a portal from where you can dip into various forms of content linked to a particular TV programme. For instance, when I go onto the Top Gear page on zeebox, I can branch out to associated content in the form of apps and downloads.
  5. It’s social! – Last but not least, zeebox enables you to keep on top of what your friends are watching or are talking about. This is a route which is already prevalent across music services such as Spotify and Rdio. Once you know what other people are watching, you can then engage with them around this content or discover new stuff through your friends.

Main learning point: I can see why zeebox and the idea of a “second screen” (as zeebox’ Co-Founder Anthony Rose calls it) is generating quite a bit of excitement. The main thing that I am not sure about is how people will use zeebox on top of some of the social channels like Twitter and Facebook that they are already using. Also, it will be interesting to see how many people will be interested in the ‘context’ around TV. I feel that this area of content sharing and discovery is still at its early stages and that it will get more and more sophisticated over time.

Related links for further learning: