Deciphering “gemba”

Go see, ask why, show respect.

Fujio Cho (born in 1938), Toyota Motor Corporation honorary Chairman

Gemba, a word that sounds good

The process is simple. The principle is also simple to understand. However, implementing it requires patience, humility and attention.

It could become an overused buzz-word. But it is more important to understand the concept and apply it as often as possible.

This article aims to decipher the concept of “gemba” and what revolves around: gemba walk, gembutsu.

What is gemba ?

Gemba is the founding principle of operational excellence. This is why it is useful to improve a process, to develop a functionality of a software or to put in production a new product or service. All Agile, Lean, Six Sigma methodologies rely on the Gemba concept, without naming it.

The Japanese term Gemba refers to “where the action takes place” it could be translated by the field. In a factory, of course, one thinks of the production line, where the manufacturing activities take place. However, the offices where purchasing, planning, design, sales are made are also Gemba.

By extension, the Gemba designates all places where value is created in the organization. Value is what the customer buys: the quality of the product or service, for example.

Corridor of a hospital, with in the foreground, a nurse pushing a bed. A doctor walking and talking with a nurse and in the background a doctor talking with an elderly person in a wheelchair.
Gemba example in an hospital

Why is gemba so important ?

In my article on management models, I ask you about the power given to front-line employees. To stay in line with this, you have to deal with the problems on the ground, in the field.

Foster communication with frontline employees

When the management goes on the field it clearly indicates how important it is. These are not just words and values displayed on a sign, it’s a reality. In addition, the stakeholders are more comfortable in their work area. They control their environment and are more comfortable talking about it.

One can easily imagine the shyness of an operator or developer to talk to the director of his company. In addition, if the discussion is about an issue and takes place in the office of the latter. Both the operator and the developer will be very uncomfortable to share their reality.

Explore, experiment, test

On the other hand, it is always easier to explain a situation or a problem by being on the spot. A working group or manager will save time to see on the spot to understand. In addition to the verbal explanation, they can see, touch, feel what we are talking about. Explanations and exchanges will be clearer and more productive. We are sure to understand each other. Therefore we save time for the continuation of the project or the treatment of the problem.

Finally, by talking around an equipment or a work area, creativity will be released, with the possibilities of testing and the use of the different senses. Remember that everyone is more sensitive to hearing, sight or touch. On the ground, all senses awake, everyone will make the most of his or her qualities.

When should you go on the field ?

Despite overloaded schedules, it is important to visit the field as often as possible.

Evaluate gembustu, produced defects

Following an accident, a breakdown, a quality problem, instead of convening a meeting in a room and bringing objects / actors from the field in the room, why not go to the field? We will have the chance to see the defects produced (in Japanese: gembutsu). The operations can be seen to work normally and to question what caused the malfunction.

Be more efficient in projects

In the context of a project, it is also relevant to go to the field. In one of my mandates, I participated in a Six Sigma project, as a representative for the plant. I was stunned to spend 8 hours working on equipment in a meeting room. The other participants did not have the chance to see the equipment.

How can we be effective and relevant without knowing what we are talking about? By going to see the equipment working, we could easily have won 4 hours of meeting, lost to explain and imagine what could happen if we pressed each button.

Before you buy new software for a sector, you need to know how it works. If you find that there is a lack of performance or communication, it is not the implementation of a new system that will solve the problem. Indeed, the root cause search must go through the visit on the Gemba.

The Gemba walk

En route pour un gemba walk

Another opportunity to visit the field is the Gemba Walk, which is a specific activity. 1st level supervisors should be on the field all the time with their teams. Managers and directors should take the time, from once a day to once a week, to take a tour on the ground.

Be careful, this is not a “health” walk. At first, you can focus on a workshop, or a work area and watch the operations work for a few moments. The goal is to understand what is happening, and to talk to the operators or technicians. Once the process is known, the observation period may be shorter and look like a factory “tour”.

When he knows how everything is supposed to work, a director or a manager will be able to detect dysfunctions very quickly.

  • Well, what does this palette do in the middle of the way? Usually there is nothing here …
  • There is a larger volume of files / parts than the last times in this area …
  • What does this person do with his documents / parts in this part of the factory / office? It’s not in the normal process …

How to go Gemba ?

For field visits to be successful, there are some prerequisites:

Be open-minded

Even if the directors know the theory and know how the organization should work, a multitude of factors disrupt this ideal functioning. Those factors ranges from the weather, to the mood of everyone, the computer systems or an accident that delays delivery. The organization constantly adapts to these factors and does not always work according to the defined rules. The visitor must therefore remain open. Before criticizing a change in operations, question the teams about the causes of malfunction.

Be a bit naive

The experts on the ground are the people who work there. They have often been around for many years. Their experience and knowledge are of great value. They must be taken into account. They often have good ideas for improving things in their area. You probably have your ideas, and maybe you have already tested them. However, you must be naive and listen to the proposals from the field. Refrain to judge hastily. You will then check the impacts on the other sectors. You can then implement or explain to operators why those are not good for the organization.

By increasing the organization’s knowledge and impacts on other sectors, the operational staff will be more relevant in their future proposals. You can also take them to a Gemba Walk in another area.

In factories, there is just one point on which the manager or director will have to be inflexible: it is security. If the wearing of glasses is mandatory, everyone must wear them, the manager must be exemplary in this area.

Have an objective

As explained above, a field visit aims to address a problem, to be aware of the state of the business, it is not a daily walk, to chat with the weather teams. You must know why you are going on the field. Ideally, your goal will be SMART or at least measurable.

In conclusion

à retenir

Gemba is the terrain where value is created where field problems are dealt with. You have to go see with your own eyes , question the teams in the field (ask why) and value the ideas and proposals that are made (show respect).

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