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Sensing the Gemba

by Mike Orzen & Tracey Richardson
August 10, 2018

Sensing the Gemba

by Mike Orzen & Tracey Richardson
August 10, 2018 | Comments (10)

Lean practice places great emphasis on learning through direct and disciplined observation of current conditions at what is referred to as the Gemba. This Japanese term connotes the actual place that work is happening, whether that work takes the form of an output, a service, a manufactured product, material and information flow, and others.   

As lean coaches, we explore a set of questions designed to help understand the nature and purpose of the work. This includes questions such as:

*What value is the process generating?

*Does the value flow?

*Are people following standard processes to make it all work or fighting informal processes to make it work?”

When we go and see at the gemba, we seek to do so in a manner that connects us to the people and the work as deeply and mindfully as possible. Regardless of the defined output, the question that always drives us is: what value am I adding for the people and the organization?

As leaders, influencers and change agents, our default mode when we go to the Gemba should be going to see with a purpose (asking ‘why am I here?’) and then engaging with the process owner doing the work.

This work calls for humility, curiosity, and a balance between tapping into one’s experience without telling others how they should do things. It also means avoiding asking a standard set of questions or relying on pre-existing biases as part of the learning process.

Being able to take in what really matters at the Gemba is crucial. We must be able to talk about the work and the barriers and constraints to creating value and what resources people need to succeed. And the worst risk is that we may fail to connect because we are not being fully present at the Gemba. Succcessfully engaging in this work often stretches the rubber band on our comfort zone because we as “experts” must let go of certainty and realize that there is an “is’ness” to the Gemba, something that is always happening NOW that can speak to us through our various senses, beyond direct communication.

We believe that the way you think or process information or interact with people makes a huge difference at the Gemba. And that developing mindfulness of the smallest things, both internal and external, is key. If we think about being in tune with ourselves first and learning to project that outwardly to our work and others, imagine the problem-solving awareness muscle we could develop. For example, in our personal lives we all have an initial problem awareness of when we may be getting a cold--our throat may be a little sore or our sinuses change. That’s when we intervene as quickly as possible with countermeasures to keep it from progressing. Without our keen sense of awareness to our body and changes that we recognize a discrepancy could get out of hand. So developing our senses within the Gemba allows us to be predictive versus reactive and also lead and learn with people in the same way.

When I (Tracey) was being conditioned to think differently in my youth at Toyota, it surprised me when I was asked to heighten my awareness of the environment I was in. I learned that your current environment speaks to you in many ways and if you tune in the dial just right you will catch the frequencies across the airways of the Gemba.

I can remember, for example, being asked to notice smells; and when they may change, to try to understand why.  In some departments, this could be crucial. It was for me and others in the Plastics department at Toyota. This mindfulness easily applies to everyday life.  If I were to blindfold a person and place them outside, would they be able to differentiate whether it were cloudy, sunny, humid, rainy, foggy, sleeting, hailing or snowing?  Most of us have been exposed to many of those elements, so we can breathe in the air and say it has rained in the last 10-15 minutes, or its about to rain. We sense a specific smell in the rain and we don’t have to see it.  

Similar to some of our equipment, processes and chemicals in Plastics, we could smell if a process was out of standard. It might be that we could smell that the parameters were off, or someone left a outside door open and the humidity levels changed.

Developing the ability to know your Gemba through methods like this can allow you to always be in the present with your people and the process, which helps you behave according to leading indicators in nature (which predict the process) versus lagging ones (which prompt reactions when it is too late).   

At our Gemba, auditory andons were a part of the environment. Different “tunes” had meaning for specific people to respond quickly with a purpose and awareness of something that had taken us out of standard and needed attention in less than a minute.

Over time this became a habit, part of our routine. We learned that smelling, hearing, feeling and seeing helped us to manage problems so they didn’t manage us.  

For example my sense of smell was developed so finely that I knew when the substrate of a headliner (fiberglass) was either in the oven too long (out of standard) or when our temperature setting were too high. The smell was a bit of a lagging indicator, but it was a leading one in the way that drove me to see, versus not paying attention to the minor aroma change in the area. These were the types of things we learned at the gemba in order to be in tune with the present moment and all of our surroundings including the people in the area and their responses to the change. It allowed for great teaching moments to learn more about the depth of what the gemba has to offer us if we stop, breathe and seek to understand.

If you are a leader or coach, we suggest that you practice developing each of the senses in order to share the wisdom and develop those traits in others. When you go and see, consider these specific steps you can take to heighten your focus, awareness and senses. Our five senses of perception serve as gateways to being in the present moment and position us to have more productive and insightful Gemba walks.

Sight: as you look at people, process and things, imagine that you are viewing them for the very first time. Look very closely with attention to detail and a renewed curiosity. Note what you are seeing that you may not have noticed before.

Sound: listen carefully to the words people use, the sounds of equipment, and the movement of work. Become very still and quiet inside in order to deeply listen to the sounds around you. Hear the silence between the sounds. Note sounds in the background versus sounds in the foreground.

Smell: as Tracey shared from her past experience, note how the sense of smell can focus the find and create deeper levels of awareness and presence. What do you smell? How many scents can you identify?

Taste: what is the flavor in your mouth? Even focusing on this sense can enhance your ability to be present and focus on the present moment. 

The next time you show up at the gemba to do a “go and see,” take a personal assessment of your level of focus, presence and awareness. Choose any one of your senses to focus within first, so that you can be 100 percent present to deeply sense what is going on with the people and work processes of the value stream.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
Keywords:  coaching,  gemba,  leadership,  learning,  mindfulness
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10 Comments | Post a Comment
Riad ardahji August 12, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Thank you Mike Orzen and Tracey Richardson ... I totally agree with leveraging the 5 senses in the GEMBA. However, our model is made of 6 senses, including intuition. Intuition is very important and key in developing our GEMBA teams. Our 5S (senses)+1 is 6S which is also same as our 6S name (safety, seiri, seiton, seiso, seiketsu, and shshitsuke). We train teams in 6 senses prior to the GEMBA or genchi genbutsu. Every team has the common 5 senses but not same intuition. Therefore, we develop intuition through consequences and real examples from previous GEMBA walks internally and externally. This 6th sense is a key for a successful GEMBA. 

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Tracey Richardson August 12, 2018
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I agree with you Riad, there are so many levels of our senses we can tap into in regard to our senses and how we use them to learn from one another.  Intiution for each individual can bring in experiences, tenure, and tribal knowledge that allows us to learn to go and see those "feels" so we share wisdom.  Great comment, thanks for sharing!! Tracey

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David Hicks August 13, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Sometimes you can also sense mood or tension in the team members that might indicate underlying issues. 

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Tracey Richardson August 13, 2018

Absolutely David, it can be a leading (and lagging) indicator to the cultural climate in many facets.  A good thing to always be tuned into as leaders/influencers!! Thank you for sharing, good to hear from you. 

Mike Orzen August 15, 2018

David, Yes, mood and tension of a team are great examples of those intangibles that may only be noticed when we tap into all of our senses when at the gemba.

Isabelle Badinand August 14, 2018

Would anyone have any illustration of what using all 5 senses at the gemba in an IT distributed team is like? 

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Tracey Richardson August 15, 2018
1 Person AGREES with this reply

Hi Isabelle, 

What a great question!   Ernie and I had the pleasure of being at a few (IT) Gemba's one was a Nationwide Insurance in the IT department.   They hosted us for a Gemba Walk class.  For me it is different that manufacturing, not as visible for sure.  So the senses I used when learning with the participants were definitely visual perspectives.  They had lots of information posted per team and metrics connecting their functional areas as well as to true north. 

I also used an intuitive sense of what information is flowing in between computers?  How is it processed?  How is the team members demeanor about processing?  So body language, verbiage they may use to describe their process (tone).  So I can someone assess if they are satisfied with the work/leaders etc.  

I listen to their enthusiam to share, or their reluctancy, I think the senses are a bit different but definitely there especially from a cultural perspective and material and information flow and how that is done with the least amount of waste.  

Let me know if this helps or makes sense?  Thank you for your question Tracey

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Mike Orzen August 15, 2018
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Hi Riad, Excellent that should mention intuition, as this is our most powerful (and most under-developed) sense. To some, intuition is simply a hunch or gut feel, but it turns out intuition is much much more. Intuition is an uber-sense in that it touches all of our physical senses through awareness. Perhaps I should explore this a bit! in a post! Thank you for the feedback.

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Daniel Rosh August 16, 2018

Great article Tracey and Mike.  This is another good avenue for our leaders to obtain a better idea of what is happening locally in the Gemba.

Similar to Isabelle’s question, how can we best talk to, educate, and coach our leaders to begin using their senses in a transactional, office environment?  I am imagining some resistance if this coaching borders too much on the touchy-feely side. 

I like the other comments suggesting intuition, demeanor, mood, etc. should be something a leader is sensitive to in the environment.  How can we best approach leaders to adopt these suggestions?

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Mike Orzen August 24, 2018

Hi Daniel,

These concepts are perhaps more important in an office environment where people tend to describe the workflow as "invisible." With digitization touching every piece of the work people do, we need to dig deeper to access the gemba. The techniques described in this post will help you get there. You being present does not require anyone else at the gemba to get excited about developing a calm, focused, nonjudgmental frame of mind (which leads to heightened awareness to see what is really there). Just work on improving your own powers of presence and observation! Best, Michael

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