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Gemba, workplace, genchi genbutsu, go-and-see ... What’s the difference?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

Is there a difference between “gemba” as used in lean texts and “genchi genbutsu” as they appear in Toyota literature?

Um. No … but, yes. The official definition from the Lean Lexicon for gemba is “the Japanese term for ‘actual place,’ often used for the shop floor or any place where value-creating  work actually occurs; also spelled genba.” The definition of “genchi genbutsu” is “going to the source to check facts for yourself so you can be sure you have the right information you need to make a good decision.” One is a place, the other is an act. To be fair, most lean texts talk about “going to the gemba,” “gemba walks,” or “go and see,” and I use gemba most of the time as a compromise between the English term “workplace” (awkward) and genchi genbutsu (cumbersome).

(Watch the brief video below as Michael Ballé, coauthor of Lean With Respect, uses a taxi queue on the streets of Paris to make a point about why we “go and see.”)

Beyond terminology, is there a difference in spirit? Well, yes – but there is no consensus on this point, so I’ll give you my personal take on it. Gemba is a static term, and tends to be interpreted as seeing problems at the real place – issues that we must fix for the gemba to work easier, better. Genchi genbutsu, as I’ve seen it practiced by TPS sensei, is more about looking for improvement opportunities. One is fixated on what you see, the other on what you don’t – but could.

I agree that I’m over-emphasizing the difference here. Learning to see what is there, and what the real people do with real products in real conditions is essential to understand how our decisions make work easier or harder, flow smoother or slower,  and so on. Seeing the reality of what is there and facing it without blaming the guys doing the work is a foundational skill.

Look for Trouble

But so is seeing what is not there; what improvements could be made right now to move forward, such as:

  • Better visualization to reveal problems;
  • Easier work environment to make the flow of operator movements smoother and remove stumbling blocks;
  • Easier detection of wrong parts or not so good equipment conditions;
  • Steadier flow of products in smaller batches

And, all in all, understanding how muri, mura, and muda interact in real-life conditions. See more Japanese terms, meaning overburden (Huh?), unlevelness (Is there such a word?), and waste, (What is waste anyhow? Activities that use resources and don’t add value).

So, the gemba has problems in its current conditions we must face, but genchi genbutsu has more of a connotation of actually looking for improvement opportunities we must find. Since, this is about nitpicking on terms, I might as well use the right ones:

  • Gemba invites a synchronic interpretation of lean: see the problem, fix it, move on. Lean as architecture: map current value stream, redesign it to have a future state, implement it.
  • Genchi genbutsu has a more diachronic sense: through genchi genbutsu you learn to create consensus among the people involved and move them towards common goals. This is lean as pottery, clay on the wheel, not architecture.

And this difference in interpretation is critical – one leads to operational excellence (get every operations performing at a “good” level) and the other to lean (push the customer satisfaction, quality, flexibility, productivity, and energy performance frontiers wherever you can). These are two very different paths, with very different outcomes – one, catch-up systems that eventually bog down in their own bureaucracy, the other dynamic learning curves that lead to true innovation.

How Do You Go and See?

I remember visiting a Toyota material handling site just after a sensei visit. The sensei had walked the lines and pointed at problems without saying much, and then looked at the large MIFA of the lines they had on the wall (Ha-ha! MIFA or VSM?) where inventory along the supply flows was represented as a circle for each container. Asking for a pen, the sensei had then crossed off circles to show where he wanted inventory reduction, and walked off without further explanations.

I am not suggesting we abandon “gemba” or “genba” for genchi genbutsu. In fact, I am not suggestion we see too much in precise terminology. I am suggesting however that not understanding terms is a major cause of not learning. Words rarely have a single meaning. Some words, such as “games” have many different meanings with no common overlap. Words are concepts to be explored in themselves.

Which is why your question is an excellent one, even if it doesn’t have a definitive answer. Certainly lean authors will continue to use gemba, genchi genbutsu or workplace as identical, and in some people’s minds, they may be. The point is we should be open to each specific nuance of meaning and continue to explore the concept and spirit behind the words.

Some of my colleagues argue that to make lean easy to understand, we should stick to English words. Hard to disagree with this. But what is the value in being easy to understand? Deep understanding comes from the effort one puts into understanding, and part of this effort is exploring the different nuances of the concepts we carry in our minds around simple words. So muri, mura, and muda or overburden, unlevelness, and waste. Workplace or gemba or genchi genbutsu. Actually both. Learning lies precisely in our efforts to see beyond the word to the differences in the terms, not just the common place interpretation – and certainly the diachronic versus synchronic dimensions are key to “getting” lean.

I guess the answer to your question is keep asking it, listen to a broad range of opinions and perspectives, and come up with your own distinction between “gemba” and “genchi genbutsu,” whether you feel it’s all one and the same or covers up fundamentally different ideas about how to go and see.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Ken Hunt September 17, 2015



It was a pleasant surprise to find at the end of this video some others that you have done. Anyone who has an Oobeya needs to see that video. There are two misconceptions about Oobeya:

1) It is a daily management tool

2) It is a fire fighting tool

It is neither. It is a way to determine where we need to go (Key goal indicators) and what we need to get there (Key process indicators), in order to best serve our customers, both external and internal.

Vitezslav Pilmaier October 7, 2015

Very nice article - regarding the "unlevelness" our teachers told to us use the word "unevenness" but seems this word is also a bit artificially made up.

But regarding your point in the language I have learned there is a difference (discutable / disputable I agree):

- if Gemba is the site where the value is added, then Go Gemba might mean the same s Genchi Genbutsu (that actually should be Genchi Genbutsu Genjitsu), but as one of my teachers told me "when solving a problem, the Genchi Genbutsu can lead you far from Gemba). Bu the Go Look See / Learn is also a nice synonimum

- workplace is the place where the work happens - actually the workplace is much narrower, then Gemba. As the word "work" is tied to people, but Gemba can contain machine, space, materials, buildings, systems. Also the Gemba could be pretty virtual in case of data or information processing, but the workplace is (so far) always physical, as the workers are too

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