Reconfirming the Value of “Go to Gemba” on a Recent Trip to Japan

It’s hard to believe that my latest trip back to Japan was already over a month and a half ago. A lot has changed in our world since then, and looking back on my posts and and photos gave me joy yesterday so I wanted to share them here with you.

Some of you might have followed my adventures on the LinkedIn and Twitter posts. I wanted to chronicle – and elaborate on – my experiences, share some photos, and capture some of what is so compelling to me about traveling and learning in Japan.

Go to Gemba

I considered this trip my “Go to Gemba” planning visit for Japan Study Trips later in 2020 (spaces open for October 2020).

For those of you who don’t know what “gemba” is, it is a Japanese term that means “the place something happens.” Reporters stand in “gemba” when reporting on a specific event, and crime authors describe their detectives “going to gemba” to get the facts of a case. In business terms, “gemba” has come to mean “the place the work is done.”

For this purpose Japan itself was my “gemba”!

It is important to me that as a tour organizer, that I personally go to validate new experiences (hotels, company sites) as well as continue to explore and expand my own knowledge so that I can continue to offer different experiences.

Ultimately, over these nine days, I drove over 1000 km and traveled over 1000 km by train (750 with Mami and 250 later) in just one week! And I conveniently planned my Japan visit to coincide with the Setsubun holiday, one of my favorites, held the day before my birthday.


I started this “gemba” trip with the intention that my October 2020 Japan Study Trip would be split between the Fukuoka area on the island of Kyushu, and then concluding in the Nagoya area.  My purpose of the first part of this planning trip was to connect with some companies new to me and validating some logistics for travel to Fukuoka.

Yet, I was conflicted. I liked the idea of offering a totally different itinerary for my fall program, but  I also didn’t want to eliminate some of the amazing experiences and special connections that I have with companies and leaders based further of Nagoya (Ina Foods, Ogura Metal), a visit to my beloved Daruma Temple, and showing my participants some inside looks into “my city” of Tokyo where I lived for 18 months and visit often.

This “Go to Gemba” visit gave me a chance to “go see” and evaluate. After two amazing days in Fukuoka I continued to be conflicted because of the wonderful companies we visited. Yet by the end of the week, I knew what I needed to do for now: continue focus on, expand, and deepen my connections in the areas in which I already had some special relationships and access that few other Japan study trips have. And all was not for not – in the future when repeat clients are looking for a new itinerary, I’m ready with connections to offer that program to them (and you!).

So without further ado, here are some of the insights, photos, and reflections from my trip to Japan in late January.

San Francisco – Tokyo – Fukuoka arrival

I flew into Japan on a Sunday, and despite some logistical challenges with connection flight issues through Narita airport that then required me to take a bus to Haneda and a later connecting flight, I arrived in Fukuoka late in the evening – a bit tired – but thrilled to be back in the country I consider my second home (the U.S. being my first, and Australia being my third!).

I was amused to see that in my hotel room that there was just one towel. This will have relevance to you too when you read one of Isao Yoshino’s stories in my upcoming book “Learning to Lead, Leading to Learn” – about American NUMMI workers coming to Toyota City in the 1980s for training. Stay tuned!

Day 1 & 2 – Fukuoka

Despite the pouring rain, my business partner Mami and I fantastic two days of learning, great food, and some cultural excursions.

The “Toyota Ballet” at Lexus

Our visit to the Toyota Lexus plant must have have been the 8th or 9th time that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting a Toyota plant in Japan.

It was my second visit to this specific Toyota plant – the first being back in 2015 when I was living in Japan, and when I also got to talk with the head of the Toyota Production System (TPS) Promotion Team. You can read about my experiences on that visit 5 years ago starting in this blog post.

I’m always awed by the level of synchronization, quiet, and teamwork (multiple andon signals and line stops in just a few minutes that we were watching) to deliver high quality products. Toyota is just beyond any other manufacturing company I have ever seen! A past Japan Study Trip participant remarked to me that it was like “The Toyota Ballet”. I visited a Subaru plant last year, and it was a very different experience (check out Christoph Roser’s posts about all the different car manufacturers in Japan to get his take).

I purposely sat in the visitor center to capture this video (see Twitter link below) that stood out to me many years ago – which I referenced in this article in Planet Lean.

Toyota suppliers

In addition, we visited two Toyota Lexus suppliers and met with with two passionate senior leaders who both said, almost in similar words, that without happiness and a smile at work it is not a good environment. They both strive to create a place where people thrive, are supported, and are engaged to improve their work environment every day.

Hands-on learning

At the first company – a metal stamping plant – I got to experience the hands-on training that new Toyota Lexus and supplier employees go through to learn the basics of the culture of Toyota. The focus is on safety, standard work, and then continuous improvement. Our host said that safety is the first lesson they teach, and also talked about the importance of staying calm physically and mentally when doing work so that you don’t feel rushed and are able to do your work it precisely. Then I got to practice – under some time pressure – some of the exercises! And yes, I did improve over time.

Toyota kaizen

What a lucky coincidence that our visit to the second company – a plastic injection molding plant – happened to be on same day that Toyota’s kaizen experts where onsite as part of a TPS “study group” to facilitate a kaizen event to improve the work of a production cell. Back in 2015, I learned that Toyota Kyushu was investing in the community by teaching its supplier and other companies TPS principles, and here I got to see it in action!

Alas, I wan’t allowed to take photos of the Toyota leaders there on-site with a supplier teaching and being hands-on with leading a same-day improvement to a work cell. We watched as they set up the new layout and as more experienced front-line workers stepped in to experiment with the new production process. It was exciting to see the real time improvements being tested!

Off to Nagoya for a quick visit with Isao Yoshino

I jumped on the bullet train Tuesday night and journeyed to Nagoya, more familiar territory as I usually am there several times a year to both visit Isao Yoshino and as the starting point for the Japan Study Trips.

Mr. Yoshino and I reunited in person, after not seeing each other since the pervious May, though we talk via Skype several times a month to collaborate on our forthcoming book (more coming soon!). The next morning we squeezed in a photo shoot to get an image of us together to use for the back cover of the book.

Lunch with Ritsuo Shingo

After the whirlwind of a photo shoot, Mami and I jumped back in another rental car (Toyota, of course) and drove to Toyota City where we had lunch with Ritsuo Shingo. It was my first time meeting him – and unfortunately we didn’t get a photo – and I look forward to him sharing his experiences with and joining some gemba visits to Toyota suppliers with future Japan Study Trip groups.

Mr. Shingo talked about different reflections from his management sytle and experiences. Since we were at lunch, I was only surreptitiously writing a few notes. I managed to capture one quote that stood out to me from Mr. Shingo:

“My style of management is to never give up.”

The Japanese Mountains of Nagano and Gunma prefectures

Following lunch, Mami and ventured into the mountains in the Nagano Prefecture to visit our friends at Ina Foods, check out some cultural additions for upcoming trips, and test out a ryokan (traditional Japanese hot spring hotel) in case we decided to stay in the Nagano mountains on a future Japan Study Trip.

Ina Foods – whose founder is the sensei to Toyota leaders

Our first stop was Ina Foods in the Nagano Prefecture to stop by Ina Foods – one of the highlights of my Japan Study Trip from May 2020 –  and discuss our visit for later in the year. I’m so honored that the former chairman Mr. Tsukakoshi (father of the man pictured with Mami and me in the Tweet below) will join us again for a lecture, discussion, and tour for upcoming programs. Mr. Akio Toyoda has called Mr. Tsukakoshi’s newest leadership book “my textbook”! (See circled text).

You can read more about Ina’s culture where “Happiness is our Purpose” and Mr. Tsukikashi’s “Tree Ring Management” philosophy in past blog posts.

Sake Brewery – Revitalization, Challenge, and Kaizen

Mami and I had been discussing that it would be great to find another company in the Nagano area to visit on our Japan Study Trip program – so we asked our hosts. They suggested  that we visit a local sake brewery that they had purchased a few years earlier as a way to invest in the community. Once again, the word “revitalization” was used in Japan! (Check out my recent Gemba Academy Podcast “The Importance of Hansei and Revitalization” to hear more about this concept).

So Mami and I backtracked about 45 minutes for a visit that did not disappoint!

We had a private – and not usually offered – tour of the rice fermentation process (no photos allowed), followed by a tasting. The cellar master / manager explained how the brewery became a recipient of international awards through pursing a challenge set out by the Chairman and through regular Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycles of experimentation. It’s a great story that I will share more of in detail in a future post!

I’m excited to go back and visit with my Japan Study Trip participants in the future!

Japanese culture, omotenashi, and natural beauty

One of the special experiences that is important to me to offer and share with Japan Study Trip participants is staying at a traditional Japanese “resthouse” (more of a hotel) – sleep on futons on the tatami mat floors, soak in the onsen (if you wish), experience omotenashi (Japanese customer service), have a traditional meal, and sing karaoke!  And I love being able to take people out of the urban areas to experience the beauty of the Japanese countryside. It’s a tough job, but important to go to gemba!

Into the Gunma Prefecture

After that gorgeous morning (in above photos) and a quick breakfast, we were off for a several hour drive through the mountains from Nagano to Gunma Prefecture.

Daruma craftsmanship

We didn’t have any companies to visit that day, so en route, Mami and I stopped through Takesaki – the daruma capitol of Japan (and the world?!) so that we could paint a face on our own daruma. We didn’t visit the Daruma Temple this time, but it is absolutely a key component to Japan trips.

Learning a lot in gemba

We stayed that night in the wonderful town of Ihako, where I took participants in the May 2019 Japan Study Trip. Unfortunately, the wonderful ryokan we used last year is under renovations so we needed a new place. The place we tried out was okay, but not up to par. We wouldn’t have known if we had just looked at the website – validation of the importance of “go to gemba”.

Mami looked online and found – what looked to be – another great option in between our site visits in Nagano and Gunma, so we backtracked a few hours to check it out. What an amazing, special place! I cannot wait to stay there on an upcoming trip!!!

One last element

Our last stop of our planning trip was to a dry cleaning company that I visited with my friend Tim Wolput back in 2016. I was impressed at the time of the company’s unique approach to shaping demand, customer service, and daily kaizen. Looking forward to including it on our upcoming trips!

Back in Tokyo

I had three and a half days back in Tokyo to visit with friends, explore my favorite city in the world, workout at my boxing gym, and catch up with business connections. Here are a few highlights:

The longest birthday ever

I mean that literally! I departed Japan at sunset on my birthday (February 4th) and arrived in the early morning of the day day (9 hours later) in San Francisco.

Japan has a strong place in my heart and it brings me joy to be able to share these experiences with participants on my Japan Study Trips – and with you here. I look forward to the next time that I’m back in Japan!

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