I discovered this phrase years ago as one of Toyota Production System’s core principles. Genchi genbutsu roughly translates to “go and see for yourself”. It means you have to come to the place where actual work is done and observe. This is the only way to understand a problem and come up with a solution.
The Japanese words sounds mysterious and wise, but there are Western counterparts to this idea too. For example, serial entrepreneur Steve Blank has been saying for a long time that the key to startup success is “getting out of the building”. Lean startup movement follows Steve’s Customer development method. It revolves around the same idea of validating assumptions early on. Management by wandering around is an even older method that produces equal results.
Designers and entrepreneurs assume a lot about the world and people in it. The assumptions are often incorrect and lead to failure. Although I have known this for a long time, its importance has sunk in only recently. It was, of course, through personal experience.
I designed many complex projects outside of my area of expertise and testing them with target audience was a necessary part of the process. The biggest problem are simpler projects whose solutions are often marked as obvious. Obvious is a dangerous word. Obvious means other people have the same experience, thoughts, and assumptions as I do. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Luckily, with growing experience I can now recognize those obvious solutions early on. Then I “go out and see for myself”. I’m surprised how much I learn every time.