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Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008 at 12:18 pm

The Difference Between Knowledge and Understanding

By Holly Buchanan
January 17th, 2008

genchi genbutsuSeems everywhere I look there are articles about Toyota’s rise from small Japanese company to the largest car manufacturer in the world. There are several theories for Toyota’s success, including their much touted use of Karzai Kaizen, or continuous improvement. But another practice is equally, if not more important, is genchi genbutsu.

In a recent American Marketing Association article (“How Toyota Got So Smart“), Travis Adkins explains genchi genbutsu:

One of the most religiously followed of these practices is something that Toyota calls genchi genbutsu – roughly translated as “go and see.” In essence, this means that to truly grasp an issue, employees must get up close and personal with it.

The New York Times article gives an example of this practice with the story of Yuji Yokoya, a Toyota engineer who had been charged with the redesigning of the Sienna minivan:

He decided he would drive the Sienna (and other minivans) in every American state, every Canadian province and most of Mexico. Yokoya at one point decided to visit a tiny and remote Canadian town, Rankin Inlet, in Nunavut, near the Arctic Circle. He flew there in a small plane, borrowed a minivan from a Rankin Inlet taxi driver and drove around for a few minutes (there were very few roads). The point of all this to and fro, Jeff Liker says, was to test different vans — on ice, in wind, on highways and city streets — and make Toyota’s superior.

In the AMA article, meanwhile, Adkins points out that it’s become much more difficult to “outknow” your competition:

There’s a difference between knowing and understanding, although the two are often confused. Two organizations might have the same knowledge, but the one that posesses [sic] understanding can see consequences and implications that remain invisible to the other.

In other words, you can’t just know the facts; you must be able to interpret them.

I believe that in order to go from knowledge to understanding, one must have real-world insight into one’s customers. You have to dig deeper, ask better questions, and yes, put yourself directly into your customers’ shoes.

We don’t all have the time and resources to go as far as driving a minivan in every state in every type of weather condition. But that’s where customer personas can be your best friend. Doing a deep and thorough uncovery is absolutely necessary. This will be the first step in going beyond just knowledge to understanding. But creating personas gives you the missing link between knowledge, understanding, and applying that understanding.

Personas help you take facts about customers turn them into insight. And not just insight, but actionable insight.

So start with genchi genbutsu -- go and see. Then apply personas to turn that very valuable knowledge into crucial understanding.

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Comments (6)

  1. A bit of knowledge: Continuous improvement is Kaizen, not Karzai.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, Ralph. Not sure how I missed that.

    My apologies to our Japanese and Afghan readers.

    -Editor, GrokDotCom

  3. Hi Holly,
    This was a very valuable post. A quick reminder to dig in deeper than just acquiring information (you tend to forget that during a fast-paced day).
    Thank you.

  4. OK, at the time I’m writing this, Toyota is not yet the worlds largest auto company. Nitpicking, I’m sure, but it’s interesting that an American website would be so quick to announce that GM has been knocked off it’s perch.
    Isn’t the real story here how great the Japanese auto industry’s PR machine is? After all, the NY Times is practically a house organ for Toyota, Honda, etal.
    Now that’s smart on the part of Japan, Inc.

  5. Almost people love Toyota.
    Free coupon
    Free to everyone

  6. Thanks for pointing that out, Ralph. Not sure how I missed that.

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Holly Buchanan is a marketing to women consultant specializing in marketing to women online. You can read her blog at She is the co-author, along with Michele Miller of The Soccer Mom Myth - Today's Female Consumer - Who She Really Is, Why She Really Buys.

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