Categories: Founder's Blog


Sam Bayer


The reality of customer interaction with software

Gemba is a Japanese term that means “the actual place” or “the real place”.  Gemba is very familiar to Lean Practitioners as the tool to use when you want to study how a real user is engaged in an activity and uncover where the opportunities are for adding value, or removing waste, from his/her job.

Just go to where they work and watch what they do.

But what exactly does that mean if you are a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) provider like b2b2dot0 and your users are all over the world?

Recently, the value of Gemba hit me in between the eyes during a site visit to one of our client’s customers in Richmond, VA… which inspired today’s post.

First a bit of background.

b2b2dot0’s business model is somewhat complicated by the fact that while I do visit each and every one of our clients, they aren’t the ultimate users of our service.  Their customers are.  To be sure, while our clients (and their SAP systems) set the policies for, and the scope of, what their customers will be able to do on our website, our clients aren’t the ultimate users of our service.  So in true Agile spirit, we really need to get our client’s customer’s feedback on the value of our service to them!

We’ve settled on a variety of ways to gain insight into our client’s customers use of the b2b2dot0 service…none of which included Gemba until a few weeks ago!

  1. Customer Focus Groups – I wrote about our love affair with Customer Focus Groups earlier this year.  We run these during our implementation projects as well as during the introduction of new capabilities to our service.
  2. Online Customer Surveys -We host customized (SurveyMonkey) surveys for each of our clients and get several responses per week.
  3. Online Issue Logs – Every page on our website is linked to our Central Desktop collaboration portal’s issue log.  We normally get quite a few submissions via this route during our implementations, less so once we’re in production.
  4. Application Logs – Our application logs capture every user transaction and we get emailed when abnormal conditions exist.  I wrote about one such example in a previous blog posting entitled “Two mouse clicks in Shanghai…”
  5. Google Analytics – We get a huge amount of customer intelligence from Google (probably too much).  You can learn a little more about how we use it here.
  6. Customer Advisory Board – With their blessing, I’m beginning to establish a direct relationship with some of our client’s customers.  I hope the number of people that I can personally reach out to, and get direct feedback on our current performance as well as on our ideas and plans, will grow in the coming months.

Which leads me to my Gemba experience in Richmond.

We were all wrestling with a customer requirement called “Back Order Report”.  It seemingly was a simple requirement.  Provide a report to our client’s customers that showed all orders that had been placed but not received.  This way, our client’s customers would know where to go in order to troubleshoot a late shipment.

  • If it was truly on “back order” (ie, no scheduled delivery date) than they could call our client and ask them what the story was.
  • If the order had a delivery date (but not shipped yet) and they were happy with that date, than they knew they just needed to be a little more patient.
  • If the order was shipped, and hadn’t arrived yet, they could inquire as to the status of the shipment from the carrier (through our website).
  • If it shipped, and the carrier shows that someone in our client’s customer’s organization signed for it, they could start their investigation in their own backyard.

The complexity of the solution all revolved around presentation of the data.  Technically, SAP has all of this information and we already retrieve it in one way or another throughout our application.  The question was: what’s the most useful way to present the data?

Therein lied our #1 challenge.  We really didn’t know what problem the user was really trying to solve!  We knew that they were asking for a “backlog report”.  That’s what they told us in our Focus Groups and subsequent phone conversations.  But did they really need what they were asking for, or was there something else going on here?

Enter Gemba.

I took the two hour drive from Raleigh to Richmond on a Friday morning and spent 3 hours with the customer in their facility…and boy did I learn a lot!

  • I learned that they were having usability issues with our application because they set their screen resolution to the “over 40” setting which is 800×600 as opposed to our recommended 1280×1024 (I could have learned that from Google if I had known to ask the question)
  • I learned that the response time on accessing one type of report was so bad that they hated using it.
  • I (re)learned that the challenges of introducing a new process aren’t as much about learning the new process as they are about letting go of the old ones.
  • I also learned that they weren’t interested in “backorders”.  What they were really interested in is getting an answer to the following question:

“When can I expect to get Part # XYZ?”

Doh!Hearing that question made all of the difference in the world, and it wasn’t until I watched them in action that we uncovered the real scenario.  Our client’s customer had one of their customers on the phone who was asking about the status of a specific Part# XYZ, that they (our client’s customer’s customer) had ordered.

Now, with the right question in hand, we’re able to come up with a slick solution to the problem, and  have it ready to roll out into production in days.

That’s the power of Gemba!

The moral of the story is simple:

“just because we can live in a virtual world, doesn’t mean that we should” :-)


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