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Gemba Walking on Mars

by José R. Ferro
November 5, 2015

Gemba Walking on Mars

by José R. Ferro
November 5, 2015 | Comments (2)

Mars could be your next gemba – the place where you actually practice lean. There is much that can be learned about business management by going to the movies. There are dozens of films portraying elements of corporate life or representing business leaders at work, for instance, the new movie about Steve Jobs.

It is also possible to learn much about management through sci-fi movies. This is the case with the recent release of The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott, who was also responsible for directing other sci-fi masterpieces, like Blade Runner and Alien.

In this movie, we can observe an approach to management that reminds us of several aspects of lean management.

If you haven’t seen it, the story is about an astronaut who is left behind on Mars when a storm takes place. Believing the astronaut is dead, his crew flees quickly in order to save the spacecraft and their lives.

Slowly recovering from injuries, our man on Mars solves problems one by one, generating new hypotheses and trying to create new solutions in order to survive in an extraordinary hostile environment so he’ll be able to return back to Earth safely.

In this challenging journey, with many uncertainties, mishaps and obstacles, some of the elements of lean management come into play.

First, one of the essential elements of lean is about the astronaut using the scientific problem-solving approach in his daily life. He uses this to solve many problems, from developing alternatives for generating water and food to reestablishing communications with Earth and the spacecraft that was taking the crew back home, and as far as to defining and executing a detailed and complex plan to return.

Ever present in this endeavor was the creation of multiple alternatives in each decision. There was always a “pessimist,” lean-style hypothesis: “What if everything goes wrong…?” Being prepared for the worst for when things may go terribly wrong allows a quicker and more effective response, which was essential at various times in the movie.

Discipline and standardized work from the main character were also key, as it was the extensive use of visual management that facilitated our Martian’s life.

As our main character was doing his work on Mars, here on Earth – more specifically at NASA and a research center in California – and aboard the spacecraft that had left Mars and was on its way back home,  there were moments when decisions were taken consensually, in which everyone had a voice and people were taking responsibility and initiative.

The movie also presents the idea that using authority and power to make decisions is irrelevant when the bureaucratic mentality of an authoritarian boss is ridiculed.

Cooperation with China and astronauts from various countries and ethnic backgrounds with surnames and accents representing various cultures all pointed to a diverse world where mutual cooperation and trust prevailed.

It is worth watching this fine and remarkably well-made movie, from its visual appeal (especially in showing the colorful and shadowy landscapes of Mars) to the stunning and thrilling action scenes produced with exquisite care.

The movie is gripping, there are several additional scientific approaches and, like any good movie, it can be watched from various points of view.

Take this opportunity and watch this movie. First of all, you will have fun. Maybe you could stop there. But if you want to, you may even capture interesting elements of management to reflect on.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  gemba,  musings,  reflection
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2 Comments | Post a Comment
Daniel Jones November 05, 2015
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Great movie - but also read the book to get the full blow by blow sequence of problem solving and collaboration.

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Ruth Archer November 05, 2015

It would be fun to have a Lean-themed group discussion-and-reflection activity based on the movie and/or book. It's a good way to approach higher-level learning skills, where the trainees know the theory and they have seen specific examples, and now you want them to recogize the concepts on their own, when they're mixed in with day-to-day life. 

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