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How to Go to the Gemba: Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect

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Shook, John
6/21/2011

Everyone who has caught the lean bug shares at least one symptom: we love to observe work. We love to go to the gemba and watch the value creating work, the real work of the business.

Since joining LEI less than a year ago, I have accepted invitations to visit your gemba on five (whew!) continents. Concluding a recent gemba walk, the question came up, "What do you look for ... ?" Here are some guidelines I use when doing a gemba walk as an outside advisor.

Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect
The words of Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho, "Go see, ask why, show respect" are now famous as basic lean principles. I first heard the words from Mr. Cho himself when I was deputy general manager during the early 1990s start-up of the Toyota Supplier Support Center in the USA. Each week began with a meeting with Mr. Cho, who was acting as advisor, to discuss activities, progress, problems, and plans.

Go see, ask why, show respect is the way we turn the philosophy of scientific empiricism into actual behavior. We go observe what is really happening (at the gemba where the work takes place), while showing respect to the people involved, especially the people who do the real value-creating work of the business. So now let's do a job breakdown.

Go See
It starts with "go see," so how do you go see? What do you look for?

We want to understand every gemba from the standpoints of Purpose, Process, and People. Asked most simply and directly: is management working to align people and Process to achieve purpose? Are processes designed to enable people to work toward achieving organizational purpose? Here are some questions to dig deeper into this:

  1. What is the purpose of this gemba and of the broader organization? Are they aligned? Can you see that alignment in the Process and the people?
  2. Are processes designed consistently to achieve the purpose?
  3. Are people engaged in working to achieve the purpose, and are they supported in this work by the processes?

Although purpose ostensibly comes first, I usually focus first on Process when walking a gemba. I often begin by asking just a few simple, direct questions about purpose. What is the organization or individual trying to accomplish - objectives and problems - in general, and/or TODAY. After this we immediately begin our walk, observing and asking questions focusing on the Process. Later, I always circle back to deeper questions of purpose, objectives, and problems.

Observing for Process and people dimensions means seeking to understand the gemba (whether the specific gemba being visited or the broader organization) as a socio-technical system. I personally like to try to understand the technical side first. Though I observe both dimensions in parallel, if I can first understand what this gemba is trying to accomplish technically or mechanically - grasping the technical side of their problem - then I can easily conceive the best questions to ask to help them better understand where their real problems are what they need to do next.

So, based on the current situation of your gemba, I can begin to consider exactly what this gemba and these people need to learn. Then, I can think of how I can help them learn it.

Ask Why
Having gone to see, now standing at the gemba, how do we go about understanding or analyzing the technical or Process side of understanding the gemba-as-system? First, a thought-question for you:

What did you look for last time you went to the gemba? What do you look for whenever you go to the gemba?

Here are four ways people view work through very different "lean lenses":

1. Solution view

  1. Look for opportunities to use lean tools
  • You must be careful here. Use of a tool for the tool's sake is one of the most common reasons for failure of lean initiatives large or small and once the pattern has been set is most difficult to overcome
  • Remember that lean thinking is about never jumping to conclusions or solutions, so the solution view isn't really a lean view at all. But, it is a very common amongst well-intentioned and even highly experienced practitioners.

2. Waste view

  1. Look for Waste

3. Problem view

  1. Start with the worksite objectives.
  • Confirm: "What are you trying to achieve?"
  • Ask: "Why can't you?"
  1. Focus on system, quality, delivery, cost, morale
  • Problems: the presenting symptom or problem in performance
  • Causes: points of cause in the work

4. Kaizen view - seek patterns, forms, tools, routines, "kata"

  1. Apply at the system level - "system Kaizen"
  1. Apply at the system level - "point Kaizen"

Both the Kaizen view and problem view are solidly founded on PDCA (plan, do, check, act). The problem view is flexible and requires no specific lean knowledge. But, it can take a long time to see results, and the path may be very uncertain. It is enabled by a robust problem-solving Process that can take many specific forms. Toyota's eight-step (Toyota Business Process - TBP) Process is a very good one. Seek it out and give it a try.

Like the problem view, the Kaizen view embodies PDCA, but it also looks to establish specific (whether new or well-understood) patterns of behaviors. These patterns - kata - lead to learning, continuous improvement, and innovation of new patterns. The concept is to "enter through form" - to master the behavior patterns to make them habitual in order to learn the thinking. Take a look at Mike Rother's book, Toyota kata.

To observe with a Kaizen view, it is useful to start your gemba walk as close as possible to the customer and work your way back, considering "what would flow look like?" throughout. Think system as well as individual Process. The patterns, routines, and tools of the Toyota Production System are designed to be structures for improvement and learning. They help us see clearly and understand and also help us teach and mentor. That is, they are just the things (solutions and means of deriving solutions) that we teach, the vehicles through which we can ask questions to teach and mentor.

Unfortunately, I still find the Kaizen view to be sorely missing in most gemba walks I observe. And yet I am pleased that more lean thinkers are moving beyond the "solutions lens" (which is not really lean thinking at all), past the simple Waste lens (yes, we don't want Waste, but we need to seek understanding of WHY the Waste is there and WHAT we can do about the CAUSES of the Waste), and many are working firmly within a problem-solving framework. This represents great progress for the lean community.

Asking Questions at the gemba
Although it is the second element of "go see, ask why, show respect," "why?" is not actually the first question we want to ask at the gemba. First ask what, then why, then what if ... and, finally, why not.

The purpose and Process of asking why:

Stand and observe. Your car has a GPS; you need a GTS - a Grasp The Situation Process. We need to train our lean eyes to see and minds simply to ask what first. Asking why - to diagnose - comes later. As David Verble says, "Ask no "why?" before its time." (Check in with David and the other sensei in the new A3 Dojo on lean.org.)

Show Respect
When going to see, lean thinking mandates (yes, mandates) that we show respect to all the people, especially the people who do the value-creating work of the business, the activities that create value for customers. When visiting any gemba, through showing respect for the workers we also show respect for customers and the company, analyzing for evidence of disconnects between stated objectives, perhaps expressed in the organization's "true north" visions statements, versus what we actually observed at the gemba.

Always look for signs of disrespect toward:

  1. Workers - especially muri or overburden
  2. Customers - poor delivery or poor quality - especially from controllable mura or fluctuation and variation
  3. The enterprise itself - found in problems and muda or Waste, in all its forms

But, the worker is the first and best place to look. Think of this flow:

Respect People -› Rely on People -› Develop People -› Challenge People

We respect people because we believe it's the right thing to do and simply because it makes good business sense.

Think of building your operating system from the value-creating worker out. Observe the worker and steadily take away each and every bit of nonvalue-creating "work." Continue doing that, engaging the worker in the Process, until nothing is left except value-creating work, until all the Waste has been eliminated and non-value-creating work isolated and taken away, distributed to support operations.

To achieve that level of lean-ness, you will find that you will simply have to engage the hearts and minds of the people doing the work. You will have to rely on them, just as you have to rely on them to come to work and do their job so you can get paid by your customers.

Once we've recognized that we have no choice but to rely on our employees, it is easy to see the next step, which is that we need to develop them. As the lean saying goes, "Before we make product, we make people."

Which leads directly to the most characteristically lean dimension of respect for people: challenge. Respect for people is often mistaken for establishing the enlightened modern democratic workplace in which everyone is treated with great deference, politically correct politeness. Yet, respect demands that we challenge each other to be the best that we can be. The skill of setting challenging expectations is one of the most important skills of lean leadership.

Most of all, respect means doing what we can to make things better for workers, which starts by not making things worse. And we still find leaders doing more of their share of damage even as they try to help!

Which leads to the first rule of gemba walking: "Do no harm!"

A Note on gemba-Based Leadership
Everywhere we go, we still find overwhelming evidence that the conventional view of leader as answerman (or woman) - the leader who always has a ready answer and whose answer always right - remains strong. And, certainly, the leader's role in providing vision, direction, showing the path to true north is foundational to lean success.

But, we also see overwhelming evidence of the damage done by the broadcast of executive answers that reverberate negatively throughout the organization. I should emphasize that the above guidelines were my own, based on doing gemba visits as an invited, outside observer. It's vital for each of us to consider first, depending on where you work in your organization, where is your real gemba? It's easy for leaders to cause more trouble than they alleviate - CEOs who try to directly eliminate Waste often cause more Waste than they prevent!

Here are two simple sets of questions for you:

We already asked: "What did you look for the last time you went to the gemba?" "What do you look for (generally) when you go to the gemba?"

Then ask, "What did you do?"

And the subsequent set of questions:

"What will you look for next time you go to the gemba?" "What will you look for (generally) when you go to the gemba?" "What will you do?"

In other words, ask what will you do to help?

Whenever prescriptions are issued from afar, bad things are likely to happen. The best antidote we know? Confirm what is actually happening, as it is happening. Diagnose and prescribe as close in time and place as possible to the work. We think it's one of the most important principles and practices of lean management.

John Shook
Chairman and CEO
Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc.