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What are your three most important problems?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

What should I look for during a gemba walk?

At the end of his gemba walks, my father used to ask the site management: What are your three most important problems?

I’ve been asking this question often since and, when the leader is asked to wait until his team has answered, all too often this simple question reveals a degree of disarray: management team members are unsure, have different ideas, or both.

As you can imagine, this is problematic at many levels. First, it means the management team is not functioning very well as a team. Second, it means that each senior manager is likely pursuing his or her own functional goals irrespective of the site’s own issues or, indeed, the company’s. Third, this will make it difficult for frontline employees and frontline managers to see where their creativity and initiative is needed.

Defining the few key challenges is how lean leadership achieves clarity.

Do What a Sensei Does

The main aims of a gemba walk are to see:

  1. Whether the management team is in agreement on the main problems they are trying to solve,
  2. Whether these problems fit with the facts of the customer and shop-0floor situation,
  3. Whether teams understand these problems, are working on them, and how fast they’re progressing and
  4. Whether you can walk away with an evaluation of the local strengths and weaknesses of the product, process, and people and more questions about how they can be supported to succeed.

However, without a strong visual management system in place, these four questions are extremely hard to assess beyond quick impression and intuitive leaps.

As a result, one thing a senior manager or a Sensei will typically do at the gemba is point to how the visual management system can be reinforced through:

  1. Greater precision of the kanban system, from truck preparation area to supplier involvement and leveled plans, with visible hourly, daily, weekly targets – and comments on the issues to resolve to achieve 100% of the scheduled plan.
  2. Clearer team structure and faster recognition, reaction on problems as well as deeper reflection on causes and countermeasures, with visible (i.e. on the wall) problem solving, and visible explanations of typical defects and difficult operations.
  3. Stronger ownership of their areas by the teams with more intuitive visualization of work (mainly through 5S).
  4. Clearer visible display of each team’s kaizen efforts in terms of improving their work practices one by one, through careful study and new ideas.

Without these four elements clearly visible, it is very hard to create a safe space to discuss the team’s thinking (not just actions) and to gather facts to figure out, indeed, what the main problems are locally – which often involves changing one’s mind about the local site strategy – and maybe wider.

Unfortunately, people easily confuse the finger with the moon it points at, or the scaffolding for the building. Gemba walks can easily devolve into discussion of the visual system of “tools,” losing sight of the fact that these tools, like a microscope or a telescope, are meant to make us see something beyond: challenges that can then be expressed in a way all team members can understand what is the issue, what’s at stake and how they can contribute through their talent and passion, by creativity and initiative.

Look for the Right Problem to Solve

As a manager, every gemba walk is an opportunity to test yourself:

  1. Can I see the mechanisms at work behind what is on display (for instance, can I spot the batching decision at planning when I look at an inventory)?
  2. Can I push the teams to make their visual management more intuitive?
  3. Can I glimpse team member’s thinking behind their day-to-day reactions and problems?
  4. Can I get the local management team to agree on a few large issues and move forward in addressing those on the gemba with their teams, not itself in a meeting room?

Which means, behind these four questions, how good am I at giving my teams clarity on what we’re trying to achieve at business level, and how they can put their shoulder to the wheel at their level to help out – as well as can I recognize where effort is occurring and have the curiosity and attention to listen up to what the teams are saying.

In order to answer the fundamental keeps-you-awake-at-night question: are we solving the right problems?

Hence the eternal dilemma: our heads have evolved to focus on what we look for. Our thinking is fundamentally motivated, and that’s also how we get things done. For instance, we visualize a “North Star” of the ideal situation and can then try to see the obstacles getting in the way of this ideal and work with teams to solve these issues. But, the yin to this yang, is that we must also keep an open mind and awaken our curiosity at oddities, bizarre reactions, unexpected successes, or difficulties which will, when examined, often uncover a different take on our major problems and possibly new avenues to solve them (this is actually where the fun is when it happens).

Yesterday on the gemba, for instance, we realized that although we’d been doing a lot of kaizen at team level, no one had really looked at how well the tools were maintained (we’re talking large industrial tools), mainly because maintenance of the tools had been outsourced by the previous management team. This came up because although the management team felt many issues were being resolved with and for operators, the operators themselves kept grumbling and complaining – their main concern was the reliability of their tools, which the management team had unconsciously labeled “outside the scope.”

No easy answers. A good gemba walk in the end, is the reflection of a clear understanding of the business situation, the mastery of the lean principles and tools, and a curiosity and openness to how people see their situations themselves, what they have to say about it and how they’d like to go about changing things (or what they would like us to change for them). With gemba walks, as with everything lean, practice, practice, practice.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
John McCullough January 4, 2017

Excellent answer Michael!

Michael Ballé January 4, 2017


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