What is 'Going to the Gemba' ?

I have mentioned it a lot of times, but what the hell does it mean?  What am I talking about?  The ‘Gemba’.  This is a term used widely in the Lean world and it is one of the cornerstones to a successful lean journey for a business. If it is that important it deserves it’s own post and explanation, so here it goes.

The best way is to start with the definition.  Gemba is a Japanese term that when translated into English means ‘the real place’.  This provides a big hint about why it is important in Lean and specifically leadership.  The Lean community has expanded the meaning and describes going to where the work is done (the real place) and more importantly going to where the value of the business or organisation is created.

Like most aspects of lean, the concept is simple. It is about the leadership getting out from behind the desk or the office and boardroom and spending time at the front line. It doesn’t stop there either.  This is not the old style, warm fuzzy corporate team walk about to show face, lay of hands and say hello to the minions.  Far from it. When a member of the leadership team goes to the ‘Gemba’, there is a purpose, you go there with a servant leadership mindset. It is certainly not a ‘Command and Control’ leadership tactic. 

The purpose of going to where value is created is all about showing respect to your team and seeking to understand what is really going on.  It is about understanding the process, not what is written on documents or idealistic plans. Getting clarity of issues, challenges and the reality of the work is the first step of a Gemba Walk.  Asking specific questions like “what is the process or ideal situation” or “what are the biggest challenges at the moment” can go a long way in starting an improvement conversation.

This is the second hint.  When you are in someone’s workspace asking them questions about the work, processes and issues, there is a greater chance that you will discover what is really going on, not what you think or hope is happening!  Most importantly by going to the Gemba and asking questions you are starting to enable the team.  If you understand what is happening, you can empower the staff to make business improvement decisions on the spot.  This means you need to be prepared to discover and also make decisions, role model the process.

Talk to the process owners, the people who are doing the work and ask them respectful questions.  Connect these questions back to the 8 Wastes of Lean, it is a chance to reinforce and teach them to ‘see’ where the waste could be.  Challenge them (in a nice way), encourage the people to improve, how can it be done better? Observe the standards the team and individuals are keeping.  How are the team managing 5S - are there signs that the accepted standards are dropping?  This is a great way to spot issues while they are still small problems.

If it is early in your Lean journey, the fact you are there as a leader and asking the team lots of questions might freak the team out.  Individuals may even be hesitant to make potential changes. Use the opportunity to coach and facilitate the team through the first few improvements, lead them through the changes, show them it is ok to improve.  Get involved in a supportive, guiding capacity - don’t do the work for them.  You want to become an enabler not a firefighter. It is about building positive relationships and helping the team by removing any barriers that will stop them improving their job. This process also improves the feedback and communication both in time and quality. Shortening the feedback loop is a critical element for future improvements.  This is the predominant reason why the old style suggestion boxes never work, mainly because no one ever follows up with the originator of the ideas.  Because there is a lack of feedback, team members are reluctant to come up with more ideas.  Sounds simple, because it is.

If you find that teams learn the pattern and start holding on to all the problems until the boss comes around to ask for a solution or for you as a leader to make a decision.  While it is great that they seek the help of leadership, the ultimate goal of a business practicing Lean is to empower the team to make as many business improvement decisions as possible.  

To avoid the trap of becoming the solver or firefighter, respond to these scenarios with a simple question “tell me what three things you have tried”. They will soon realise you are not there to fix issues for them but to help them become a problem solver.  If they have tried without success, then go in and collaborate with them to identify solutions.

Finally, as a leadership team be prepared to take the long game in respect to the Gemba and Gemba walks.  Determine what is the frequency of the walks (daily, weekly etc), do you go as a whole team, individuals or pairs? Keep the purpose clear across the leadership team.  Also how do you capture, share and celebrate the awesome wins you will discover.  Consider how you will manage the communication loops if you are asked questions or information, you need to make sure there is timely follow up, even if it is to say that you're still working on it etc. Like most of the tools and approaches in the Lean journey, it might feel a bit awkward at first, a bit clunky, but the more you do it the more it becomes second nature, an important part of the continuous improvement process.

That is the Gemba and Lean Leadership - going to where the work is done.


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