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In IT, can we do virtual gemba walks?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I am part of an IT creation and support organization. How do you do a gemba walk, initially or afterwards, when management and the business customer are in one country, IT development in another, and IT OPS in another?

You’ve got to go there and see, no short cuts. The underlying question in IT is how come we can’t do virtual gemba walks? After all, we should have enough information sharing technologies, particularly with social media tools like Snapchat or Instagram to have remote content-rich data. Hmm…

Genchi genbutsu,” or “’go and see,” is defined by Toyota as going to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, build consensus, and achieve goals. There’s a lot in there:

  • Fact: Something that has really occurred or is actually the case. Fact is about verifiability and shared context. Information as such is not a fact. It becomes a fact when we share the context of the person sharing the data, whether a picture or a report. In other words, you need to be there on the ground in person to see the context for yourself and share the experience with others. Every time I go out of the meeting room to go and see, the problem is not the one that was discussed -- context matters to understand any situation.
  • Make correct decisions: Making the right call is often about evaluating how important or urgent the situation is, what are the deeper causes, what should be the immediate response and then evaluating the local team’s ability to do so. You can’t do this through Skype. Making correct decisions hinges upon our entire capacity for discernment and there is no other way than seeing people in their context to grasp how to react, what they can do on their own and where they need support.
  • Build consensus: Freddy used to ask whenever he visited a plant as a CEO (many plants across the world): what is your number one problem? As a lean coach, the question I ask when I visit sites, whether engineering, logistics, or production is “what is your main improvement opportunity?” It’s always both fun and astonishing to see that the local management team rarely agrees and their answers are individually completely different. Getting people to agree on what the main problem is and how they’re going to tackle it requires observation and discussion, and then more observation and more discussion, and this is something that can’t be done remotely. Lean is a hands-on sport.
  • Achieve goals: As you return from a gemba visit, during the long hours in planes, trains, automobiles, queues, and lounges, an important debate is: is the site progressing as fast as we need to achieve our goals? If not, what should we do? In lean thinking, achieving goals is about building capability. There is no other way to grasp capability than seeing people in action. Actually, the most powerful way to understand their strengths and weaknesses is to take part in a kaizen event with them at the gemba. By seeing how they handle a specific case, you get a pretty good idea of where they’re at, which direction you need to get them to grow and at what speed: don’t give up until completion.

No way around this one: you’ve got to go and see. In my experience, there are four main gembas

  1. How do customers actually use our products to support their lifestyles? Our products or services are our life, and we tend to inflate their importance in customers lives. As an author, I can tell you that how people use books can be very surprising. For instance The Wall Street Journal poked fun at Thomas Piketty’s Capital in The XXIst Century for being the most unread book people bought. In the 700-page book, the last of the top five popular pages appear on page 26. Which doesn’t mean that people who bought the book didn’t get exactly what they needed from it: the gist of a complex argument. They didn’t need to read the rest of the evidence.
  2. How do engineers translate customer experience into technical parameters? This is where engineering is less of a science and more of an art. To my mind, a root cause to any problem is when we’ve figured out where is the wrong calculation in the mental or IT software of a person or a system. Until we’ve seen where the calculation is out of line of what we understand of the facts, we need to keep digging. This means first agreeing on the facts, which means observation and discussion, and watching, and measuring how customers use our products in their real life.
  3. How do production guys run their people and equipment? Most lean aficionados are more familiar with this gemba. The trick we learned from Taiichi Ohno is to look at very detailed waste (indeed, the famous seven wastes) and see through that prism the wrong-headed policies or attitudes with which we run our facilities. You can’t observe seven wastes remotely, you’ve got to be there because context really matters in delivery processes, whether manufacturing or service. The difference between output and outcome can be found in the very detailed choices every operator makes in the course of their work, which requires hours of on-site observation. In the specific case of IT, unless we’re actually reading code, we’re not doing Genchi genbutsu.
  4. How is the supply chain set up and what are our relationships with suppliers? You’ve got to have lived through the painful embarrassing moment of visiting a supplier to ask more for less and have to go through the file they have on all the silly things you’ve done wrong, last minute changes, not communicated technical information and so on. The only way to experience how suppliers feel about us -- and what kind of service they feel they should provide -- is by visiting them and watching their operations. We can then go back to our own logistics department and see firsthand how work is being scheduled and what kind of nonsense orders we send to suppliers, IT or otherwise.

To sum up, Genchi genbutsu is exactly what it means: go and see for yourself and get the facts firsthand, globalized supply chains or not. On the other hand, Genchi genbutsu is also what makes lean so different and work fun (if you learn to take travel philosophically). As one CEO once told me: “The day I tire of gemba visits, is the day I have to sell the company.”

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt January 28, 2015

Thank you Michael for putting this so well! I have seen several of the same type of questions in the Lean Post. I get very frustrated when I read these questions because people use logistics as limitations, when they should realize that fixing problems by actually SEEING what is happening will more than pay for itself in travel expense.

Kind of similar to people wanting to do electronic Value Stream Maps from an office without actually observing, but that's another discussion. 

Michael Ballé January 29, 2015

I agree. I'm always amazed at how often people focus on the sharing of information part of lean tools, whether VSM, visual management, A3 or whatever and not their leadership potential. These visual tools are supports for meaningful leadership conversations, certainly, but leadership comes first. Without demanding intent to improve, kaizen soon falters and visual tools can then be used AGAINST the kaizen spirit as a means to support the status quo. 

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