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No Really, Go to the Gemba

by Danielle McGuiness
September 6, 2013

No Really, Go to the Gemba

by Danielle McGuiness
September 6, 2013 | Comments (3)

Traditional managers often get stuck in all-day meetings without knowing the real work to be done. One of the most powerful principles of lean thinking is the “going to see.” This means visiting the gemba, the place where the real value-creating work gets done in your organization. How often are we really there to support the work of staff, minimizing their burden? Instead, we habitually rely on data to help guide us.

Data is not enough. Data is great for trending and thinking long-term, but being on the floor and seeing operations is where you can really begin to problem solve. Moreover, being on the floor with your team sends a symbolic message that you are there to support them. 

I recently spoke with a top hospital executive who didn’t know how to approach conducting a gemba walk. With hospital floors as busy as they are, she wanted to be helpful, not an annoyance to the care team. So to her, shadowing a nurse was the right move to make. “I wanted to know what was going on, but didn't want to be in the way. I still kind of feel like I’m in the way even when I shadow her.”  

There is a famous restaurant in Michigan where the owner manages his business just by refilling water glasses. Not wanting to be intrusive to staff, but still wanting to deliver value to customers, he grabs a pitcher of water and rounds the tables during the dinner time rush. Not wanting to interrupt customers' conversation or awkwardly ask how dinner is going, the manager observes patrons' body language and listens to what people are saying about the food and service. And he does just with the simple act of refilling water. 

The beauty of gemba visits are that they are for everyone. It’s amazing how well we think we know a process, but when we actually stand there and watch the process of work as it gets done, we see how different things are. We begin to see problems and opportunities for improvement and/or creativity.

I remember a project in which I worked with a team of process improvement professionals. We had numerous phone calls about a particular process and were given process maps to study prior to our visit. However, upon visiting the gemba, it was clear that although these individuals may have "stopped in" at the gemba of their client, they were not really looking at the real work being done or asking the right questions. Within minutes of our arrival, we saw problems they hadn’t seen because they truly hadn’t spent enough time there. Had they done so, they would have seen the bottlenecks in the process, the amount of variation in the process, and the clear lack of standards.

How you can make the work of your staff and team members easier? How can you tell what kind of work is being done (value added versus non-value added)? What do you actually see? To start, you need to go the gemba. Then it's time to ask yourself and your team members the really big question: What are you going to do with what you’ve learned? 

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  capability development,  gemba
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3 Comments | Post a Comment
Daniel Fisher November 18, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this comment
I could not agree more with this article, Danielle. All too often managers seem to get lost in the obyss of meetings and paperwork and forget to make themselves known on the floor. Moreso than just giving you a first hand visual of the flow of your department, going to the gemba on a regular basis and digging in with your team garners more respect and more of a "we're in this together" sense with your employees. If you are simply an arm-chair quarterback - you will have a difficult time leading.


Sometimes i think management likens themselves to roman era generals - sitting high atop a mountain miles away from battle, calling strategies with a cup of tea in hand. We need to stray from that mindset and get our eyes on the processes we manage. How can you ask something of your team, if you have no idea what it takes to get it done


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Danielle McGuiness November 18, 2013
1 Person AGREES with this reply
Isn't that so strange how people often manage from a far? The roman generals is a good analogy though. You'd like to think that we would have learned a thing or two since the roman era.

I think managers often become managers because they are good at doing the work, but don't necessarily have management skills. So, how does a new manager become a good manager


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Stephen Wilkinson December 31, 2016

A "new" manager needs to understand the basics of the process, but does not needto know as much as the workers.  The manager needs to get good at asking the right questions of those people who do the work. Someone who can ask the right questions is a "problem analyzer" which leads to being a problem solver.  They get the required facts from the workers.

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