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How can we tell if gemba walks by our CEO are actually improving the business?

Michael Ballé
5/14/2017
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Dear Gemba Coach,

We’re instituting a program of gemba walks by our CEO. How will we know if we’re progressing?

Are you clear on your challenges? Do you understand problems precisely? Do you know who is going to solve them with you? What is their plan? How can you help them?

It’s a difficult question. I was on the gemba a few weeks ago in a division of a large company where the new COO has taken up the challenge of a gutsy turnaround based on his lean experience. He’s approached the problem through continuous flow and stop-at-defect. Classic lean.

And indeed, product lines are flowing better and quality is improving. It’s quite clear that “lean” is being implemented. But is the business being turned around? That’s a trickier question. We all hope. We know that on large industrial operations, budget level results are not immediate. We also know things get worse for a while before getting better (in this case, numbers have stopped getting worse, which is good news). But how do we know we’re progressing in the right direction today? And fast enough?

Continuous flow and stop-at-defect are not intended to solve problems on their own. They’re meant to “reduce the water in the lake in order to reveal the rocks.” Certainly, there are some immediate improvements as people are smart and when they better see the consequences of what they’re doing, they take better decisions.

But is that enough?

It’s relatively easy to evaluate “lean” progress in terms of how continuous flow is implemented and where people are starting to actually stop-at-defect. It’s also easy to evaluate the number of kaizen workshops done and see whether this is “real” kaizen or “fake” kaizen. So far so good. But, in lean terms, is this all motion or movement? Are we actually achieving anything business-wise?

Feeling Lucky?

Let’s take a step back here. When we look at any disruption after the fact, we can see from post-hoc business accounts that companies that succeeded with their turnarounds succeeded at:

  1. Figuring out what the real challenge was (rather than the nonsense everyone was discussing at the time).
  2. Promoting a team of people who were on it and scratching their heads trying stuff, because as the sensei say, “If you don’t try something, no knowledge can visit you.”
  3. Being lucky in finding a technical leverage point – one specific thing they could get better at that made a difference – and smart in recognizing it and pushing it very hard.
  4. Aligning the rest of the business on developing these specific technical skills to radically change the business model.

For instance, in the digital revolution of newspapers, traditional newspapers had to face the challenge that the real battle was for classifieds and ads (the traditional source of revenue for newspapers) and, barring that, how to make money on “free” news as ads consolidated over the web differently. The technical differentiating factor for digital news was the speed of publishing news – which meant reorganizing writing and newsrooms completely differently – and then learning how to make someone pay for it.

These kinds of insights seem obvious with hindsight, but when you’re caught in the battle, in the fog of war and surrounded with the friction of nothing goes right, it’s very hard to both see it clearly and get it done.

MOVE!

Gemba walks are a tool to figure out what you need to do in order to understand and address the real challenges that will make you more (or less) competitive and see whether you’re progressing fast enough. In order to see whether you’re progressing with gemba walks, we need to answer four core questions:

First, do you better understand your challenges, grasp your problems and have some insights into root causes? Lean completely breaks away with the idea that executives should be visionary leaders who understand the situation at one glance, crack the problem and then get others to execute their ideas.

The lean idea is that every local leader should try to solve her problems and, as we visit them with gemba walks, we:

  • Formulate better hypotheses about what her efforts mean relative to our more general challenge.
  • Think hard about root causes.
  • Have a deeper discussion with the local leader about leads into how to resolve these problems and where to focus efforts.

Secondly, are we building a general consensus on what technical know-how we have to invest across the board in order to turn around the general situation? For instance, in the newspaper case, this means making it clear to all that in digital news the front page is updated continuously, which means different decisions on what is “news” – faster response to events, but also more time to schedule longer term in-depth reporting.

To know whether you’re progressing with gemba walks, can you see whether the discussion evolves from lean practices, such as continuous flow or stop-at-defect, and towards more technical critical skills, such as getting news to reach the front page faster? The turnaround will be measured to the degree of consensus (and effort) on these key challenges and skills to respond.

Do you feel you’re having better discussions with people? Are you better at explaining the overall challenge so that they understand what you’re trying to do? Are they coming up with more creative ideas on what they can do at their level to explore the challenge and move forward? Do they seem more engaged with their local problems and more involved with your effort as part of a wider team? Do they talk amongst each other across functional boundaries more freely?

Thirdly, are we moving fast enough? Yes, absolutely, our hypotheses will continue to clarify throughout the gemba walks, and there are no definitive solutions, only countermeasures which will be refined through experience. But still, if we’re not progressing on key indicators it’s because we’re on the wrong problems or we’re not moving fast enough.

Each local manager has to have a plan, and the gemba walk is the opportunity to see how fast they progress on these plans and what can be learned from their successes and setbacks. Yes, we need to think deeply, but we also need to MOVE!

Fourthly, who will build the future of the company and how can we help them? During the gemba walk, there is a qualitative difference between visits with local managers who talk a good game, but then are not moving, and those who are not that good at communicating but actually change things with their staff and come up with innovative ideas. A real gemba walk skill to develop is to see through the arguments, justifications, and unavoidable fancy footwork and distinguish people who contribute truly creative initiatives from those who are very good at promising or complaining.

How do we spot the right guys and how can we help them out? After the gemba walk, you should have a clear shortlist of things you have to do to support the local manager in what she’s trying to do. There is no fixed mold for making decisions or supporting someone – you have to be pragmatic and open minded. Still, if you take a deep breath and step back and look at the support topics for each individual local manager, you’ll see that they require very different kinds of help – which tells you a lot about them.

Gemba Walks Are about You

So, in the end, the gemba walk program is as much about you as a senior exec or lean leader, as it is about the gembas you’re visiting. How clear are you on the overall challenge? How precise are you on the key turnaround skills to acquire? How clever are you in forging consensus over these core issues? How good are you at motivating and supporting local managers so that they achieve their plans?

And, probably most important of all, how insightful are you in picking and developing the next generation leaders who will make the turnaround happen? What do we do to help them? It’s not always easy, but if you rank yourself 0 to 10 on these core questions, you’ll have a window on how to answer your question about progress on gemba walks!

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