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My management team feels tense and pressured about going to the gemba. Is this normal?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

I’ve decided to take my management team to the Gemba to get them to solve real problems but this is creating a lot of tension and they complain of the pressure. Is that to be expected?

To some degree, yes. When people haven’t had the experience to solve real coal-face problems together, at first they will tend to argue who’s to blame and find it difficult to work together. So some degree of tension is normal, certainly.

You might, however, without wanting to, be adding to the pressure in trying to get your management team to solve problems right away. Let’s take a deep breath and a step back. The aim of go and see is to get management to agree on problems and to support local staff in gaining autonomy to solve their own problems. The goal is NOT to get management t solve problems – it IS to teach management to teach their staff to solve problems across boundaries. Tricky.

When you start Gemba visits what you really try to do is to get your management team to agree on problems, not solve them. For instance, in a hospital, how to you get the entire management team to agree that having stuff stored in corridors because the storage areas are full because logistics doesn’t deliver frequently enough IS a problem. This is not something they can solve on the spot. This is an issue they have to understand before they can work together at improving.

Secondly, you also need to educate your team to the fact that you’re not looking for a perfect solution right away. What you’re really looking for is a step forward to improve performance. In the hospital case, before you change the entire logistics system, your first expectations would be 5S in the storage areas to “clean the window” and understand what is what.

Thirdly, we are aiming for teamwork, not one person being burdened with the problem in its entirety. Which means that each member of your management team should attack their end of the common problem with their teams and that, somehow, you can coordinate this so that each silo sees the impact they have on other silos.

Gemba Walks: Not for Solving Problems

And last but not least, it’s your job to make sure the customer is not forgotten as people start to tackle their technical problems. “Customer First” remains the starting point, and it’s your job to represent the customer in any discussion of possible solutions. For instance, in the hospital case, my experience is that you can get early agreement on operational issues. But getting your team to face patient issues, such as measuring complications, or counting beds in corridors in the emergency room and tackling that, is much, much harder. So you start where you start, but it’s your job to keep steering your team towards issues with real impact on customer satisfaction.

This is quite a lot to swallow for any management team. What could you do to make it easier for them to follow you in this approach – other than resist simply because they don’t get what’s in it for them and feel uncomfortable (or even threatened) by where you’re going? If we draw a page from social psychology we learn that people’s mid-term attention is grabbed by:

  1. Shock: something jarring (positively or negatively) that will shut up the homunculus in the mind that is busy with internal files and will make people look up and pay attention. Gemba walks are a great tool for this because you can show your management team that something they consider banal and routine is, in fact, a real problem in the making. The reality of what happens as opposed to what people assume happens is usually unexpected enough that it shocks managers into paying attention (as well as trigger defensive reflexes you need to ignore).
  2. Frame: experience rarely actually translates into learning, unfortunately. People need to put their experience in the right mental context to understand the experience and build new hypotheses and arguments, which will lead to real learning, eventually. Framing means making explicit the goal/method you’re pursuing. In lean, the goal is performance improvement and the method is kaizen (process improvement by the workplace teams themselves). To make this easier, you can set up an obeya room where performance indicators are clear (accidents, customer complaints, service lead-time, inventory turns, productivity and so on) and where PDCA problem solving (for instance, in the shape of A3s or simpler if you like) are displayed. By doing so you create a space to think framed by the business performance you want to improve, and the kind of process improvements you value. This is extremely helpful in getting your management team to put the Gemba experience in context and understand what you’re trying to get them to do – as well as getting them to work together on specific issues.
  3. Incentive: where’s the pay-back? Incentives are not restricted to monetary gains (indeed, you have to check that your bonus scheme encourages working together and not, as most do, looking smarter than colleagues). Incentives could be better business results, more recognition, better work atmosphere and so forth. Still, you need to think long and hard about which incentives would encourage your managers, one by one, to enjoy Gemba walks and not just fear them.

This to say that lean thinking applies to Gemba walks just as it applies to everything else. How would you define a successful gemba walk? And a less successful one? What is the performance improvement you expect from your management team? And what aspect of your own gemba walks you have to improve to obtain this?

Gemba walks are the starting point of lean thinking but their aim is to create space to think about our deeper challenges by looking at specific work instances, not to solve immediate problems through management pressure. Indeed, your management team might be resisting this new exercise (some certainly are), but their gripe about pressure has to be taken with respect.

The gemba walk is not where we solve problems, it’s where we try to understand them (ask “why” again) and share them. Solving the problem is the local manager’s daily job, with the support and coaching of her own manager. Gemba walks frame lean thinking in practice. One-by-one problem solving within the department trains people to better understand their processes and come up with new ideas to improve their work.

3 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt May 29, 2015

Good article Michael! The fact that Gemba walks are meant to identify and understand problems as opposed to using them to problem solve "on the spot" is a big culture change for many, as they may feel a loss of control. To coach them around that we need to remind them that the people doing the work are the experts and as such, they are bound to come up with the best solution, because the workers own the process.

Management needs to teach and coach their teams, and then offer their support as they empower their teams to solve problems and improve the workplace.



Michael Ballé May 29, 2015

Thanks Ken,

Indeed, this is a problem I encounter often - the "action plan" culture. Management feels that anything that doesn't result in immediate action is a waste of time - better do the wrong thing than nothing at all. The idea that visual management and gemba walks are about creating space to think to support good observation and good discussion in order to sustain good thinking - and that we can trust people with action - comes as something as a shock :)

Sid joynson June 2, 2015

I posted the following comments on a previous thread. What is as important as what you do when you walk the floor, is the attitude you take with you. Whoever you meet you must see as your equal (toilet cleaner or managing director), and a fellow team member working to make the company successful and our jobs secure. This is practising one of the key elements missing from many TPS/lean programs, RESPECT. Wearing the same clothing is one of the easiest ways to send this message. With the correct visual management system* in place, part of which will have the main deployed goals and Kaizen activities on display, the issues for comment and discussion should be obvious to anybody walking 'in' the area. Don't walk 'by,' walk 'in'. We must remember that it is our Gemba people's activities that are earning all our wages. Our job is to support them in those activities. ---

Managers must remember that their feet are one of the most effective communication devices they have. Where they place them tells their people what and where they think is important. Let it be your feet not your bottom that sends the message. One of the most effective management techniques I know is OBOF. Off Bottom Onto Feet. I have met some managers who don't think they need legs to do their job. 'Cobblers' can now have a new meaning at work. Let's keep them busy. ---

Happy and respectful walking 'in'.
* Over the last three decades I have found the following rules should guide our visual control activities.--- There are 5 main elements of productive activities; Manpower, Methods, Machinery/systems, Materials (Quality and quantity) and Measures. Visual control is to make visible in the workplace for each of the 5 M's -- What has to be done -- How it has to be done -- What is actually happening. We must make it easy to see any abnormality. ---

When you walk to your office in the morning you should have a head like a tank turret, traversing from side to side. Anyone looking at you should receive a nod and a simple smile. You should have nothing on your mind except acknowledging your people. Too often I am told by people that they are ignored by their managers as their managers arrive in the morning. This not done deliberately as the managers are often preoccupied with their thoughts, but the effect is the same. How do you feel when you are ignored? Two key elements of motivation are the 2 R's, reward and recognition. Start your day with a generous distribution of the second.

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