Many a company has a "customer first" approach, and improvement methodologies such as Lean and Six Sigma start with the "voice of the customer" (VOC). So what is the point in trying to solve modern-day business problems with ethnography methods that many people still exclusively associate with anthropology?

Thanks to ethnographic studies, the Indian company Godrej & Boyce was able to develop the Chotukool fridge, a highly successful device that responds to the specific needs of people in rural India.

Intel, Whirlpool and Citigroup have professional ethnographers on their payroll. Procter & Gamble developed the Swiffer home-cleaning solutions through ethnographic studies.

The computer mouse, and the windows it helps navigate through, were also developed this way. If one day the computer mouse is made obsolete, that development work also will likely be inspired by ethnographic research.

We are convinced: Your company is missing an opportunity if ethnography is not among your methodologies to gather insight.

Learning to See Opportunities

Imagine you are the manager of the train station in Cologne, Germany. Your main concern is to make the beginning, middle and end of people's journeys a seamless experience. Gemba walks are part of your daily management routine. What you and your teams need for these walks are "glasses" for spotting opportunities to improve the travelers' experiences.

On today's walk, you see a man disembark from a taxi. The luggage still has the airport slip on, IEV -- CGN. Quite likely, he has flown into Cologne from Kiev Zhulyany (IEV) in Ukraine, and you decide to call him "Maxim." Visibly, Maxim does not understand German. You resist asking how you can help and follow as he wanders into and through the train station: Indeed, there are no signs saying "Tickets." "How odd," you think as you begin seeing the world through the eyes of what ethnographers call an "extreme user."

In the main hall, Maxim finds the information desk but struggles with queuing. In the middle of the hall, security forbids putting up any crowd control stanchions. So queues organize themselves, often chaotically. People also push the luggage with their feet as they advance. Some seem to worry about pickpockets. "No need," you think, since the police-raid two months ago.

The information clerk rightly points Maxim to the ticket counter. With the many people waiting for their turn, Maxim asks for help and is sent over to the ticket vending machines. You queue right behind him to see what happens next.

At his turn, Maxim pulls out a sheet of paper: "Titisee Neustadt." "So that's where he wants to go," you think, "a nice lake in the Black Forest." You see him struggle with the menu and call the software some names. Bending over a bit, you see Maxim type in "Neustadt," but oddly, while the software provides a good handful of options, "Titisee Neustadt" is not among them. Instead, Maxim chooses "Neustadt an der Aisch," a place deep in Bavaria, hundreds of kilometers from where he plans to go! The menu then tells him he is "missing a connection" with the first displayed option. Maxim rightly figures he should select the second option -- that is, if he actually wanted to go to Neustadt an der Aisch. The software asks a few more questions that Maxim wordily acknowledges. You stop him, though, when he is about to pay for the ticket: "Can I help?"

After directing Maxim to the correct ticket, you let him walk out and follow at a good distance, only to see him wandering again. "What is he looking for?" Finally, he passes by the bathrooms, walks around the corner, comes back -- and then walks in. The only sense you can make out of this is that Maxim struggled to see the little yellow "WC" signs. From the direction he was first walking, it is easy to miss the men's room, which he saw only on his way back.