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Getting Over Gemba-phobia

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Womack, Jim

Gemba Question: July 22, 2011

(based on a query from an attendee at the June 23, 2011, webinar):

Q: “I work in a company where leaders think Gemba walks are scheduled visits to the factory to look at performance visibility boards (forgetting to turn around and look at the work.) How do we try and correct this false thinking?”

A: A great question. I too have observed senior management walks over many years in which the managers peered at easels along every aisle showing how goals were being met and things were being improved. They invariably nodded sagely. (Today, of course, electronic screens are the preferred medium.) Yet a simple 90 degree rotation of the head would have shown that the improvements described on the easels/screens didn’t really exist in practice and that the performance claims were highly suspect. And when these managers did comment on the work it was often to point out a piece of litter on the floor or someone who seemed not to be working at the moment, observations that were irrelevant to any of the big issues facing the value stream in question.

After many similar experiences over many years I realized that most senior managers are Gemba-phobic. They are terrified of actually having to look at the work because no one has ever taught them how to look at work. They give silly answers to the wrong questions because they believe that the role of the senior leader is to give answers. And they look at performance results because they have been taught as modern managers that results – not the process creating the results – are all they really need to manage.

So we need to help them. And the only way is to show them how to take a real Gemba walk by going along with them on Gemba walks where the objective is to truly understand the value stream and its problems rather than review results or make superficial comments. This is actually one of the most useful things improvement departments can do and yet it is never in their mandate!

So let me urge you to try some experiments. Tell your senior leaders that you have developed a new and different way to take a “performance walk” and that you would like them to come along. Show them what a value stream map is and how to read it. Help them see the links between the actual work in the process and the results of the process. Help them learn to ask useful questions about the current state and useful questions about the future state. Then urge them to come back for a second walk when the future state is in place.

My Toyota friends have always said that it is necessary to make good employees before you can make good cars. Let me add a corollary: It is necessary to create lean senior leaders before the employees can create lean value streams. I hope you give the creation of lean senior managers a try and I’ll be anxious to hear about your progress.