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Should I be worried that management is buying software for virtual gemba walks?

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Dear Gemba Coach, 

A consultant is selling us “virtual Gemba walks” software to schedule Gemba visits with a “leader standardized work” checklist and key indicators tracking. Management is listening. It feels wrong somehow, but anything that gets management to pay attention is a good thing, right?

Virtual? As in, we stay in the office and review indicators, or we go and see for ourselves at the Gemba with a set checklist of control points? Interesting question. If I think back to working with executives, I do seem to need to convince them of:

  1. Going to look for themselves where work happens;
  2. Having a visual system to reveal how the process is doing;
  3. Searching for the unexpected and what people are working on;
  4. Using Gemba walks to support people development.

The first practical hurdle is indeed setting up a schedule of Gemba walks: work with an executive assistant to make sure Gemba walks are 1) in the diary and 2) regularly go and see all aspects of operations – from customer service, to engineering, to production, to supply chain, to IT.

In general, executives easily agree that it’s a good thing to visit the workplace to see how things are doing, but when it comes to scheduling a structured program of regular visits – that’s another story. It is also the first test of commitment to a lean transformation. Do they really want to improve the company’s performance, or are they looking to maintaining the status quo?

Make things work by understanding real-life problems

Maintain the status quo by making sure all systems are working ok

Keep going to the Gemba to look into the real performance problems people are experiencing and explore causes and conditions, searching for what we may have done to create this situation.

Go to the Gemba occasionally to reassure oneself that most systems are working well enough and listen to explanations and rationalizations for why everything is not as it should be, and encourage workarounds

Going to the Gemba to see what we’re doing wrong – and encourage “bad news first” in people, is quite an emotional experience at first, and when you’re not used to it, something of a trial. Many executives try it, and then somehow let it slip by being too busy, or by allowing rescheduling for one reason or other. Having a system to plan Gemba walks in the calendar can definitely help.

The second big hurdle is letting go of the management control mentality. Our image of ourselves is that we are calm, reasonable people: We absorb new information, we digest it and reason it through, then come up with a sensible course of action. It’s all the others who are emotional irrational idiots who can’t face the facts and are stubborn in their narrow-minded beliefs and stupid in their knee-jerk reactions. As far as cognitive science can tell, we have two distinct modes of reasoning:

  1. Motivated reasoning: When we’re highly invested in a project or a result, we focus on confirmation that things are going as planned and we obsess about obstacles and try to make them disappear, either by dismissing them or by forcing people to “do something.” Motivated reasoning is a strong motivator (as in: makes you move) to resolve issues and get things done but often drives you in deeper trouble by insisting on the wrong things and running roughshod over people who dissent or have a different perspective.
  2. Reflective thinking: This is a looser, more curious way of considering the wider context, the meaning and implications of what we’re seeing. Lately, scientists talk about Actively Open-Minded thinking. Reflective thinking is essential to avoid making costly errors and, essentially to look up to see where you’re running. It’s easier to do with less emotional engagement in results or maintaining one’s identity, and rarely as strong a motivator as motivated reasoning.


The real question on the Gemba is not so much “are all our systems working?” but “where are they really taking us?” Riding the horse is one thing (and sometimes just staying in the saddle is a full-time challenge) but knowing where it is going and steering it is another altogether. In business, we’re often riding the horse full tilt without a map – or a clear destination. This indeed requires Actively Open-minded Thinking.

Sure, you start by looking at how existing systems perform, but to understand where they’re going, you then need to focus on problems. The point of visual management is making this reflective thinking easier by facilitating the exploration phase. With good visual management, you can see how things work rather than have to discuss it with people, which is far more fluid cognitively. More brainpower can then be devoted to “what does that mean” as opposed to “what are they saying?”

However, looking at systems to see if they perform as expected or looking at standards to see how they’re maintained is just the entry point, stepping into the room. The real aim of the gemba walk is understanding the causes and conditions underlying non-performance so we can reflect on it: reasons and potential consequences. We need to see whether the horse is limping or running in the wrong direction while riding the horse – not an easy challenge. Then, as we look up and reflect on lean, we remind ourselves that we go to the gemba to develop people, not just to fix the system. 

You’re at the gemba, in the digital department of your company, where developers are showing you their new mobile app that has an 87% approval rate. Or you’re looking at the new machine that you’ve installed on the shop floor that has 97% right first time and 82% OEE. What then? Everyone’s explaining that, considering the circumstances, these results are really good – which is probably true. And that not to worry, they’re working hard on an action plan to make sure that things improve. Probably true as well. The gemba challenge is not to get sucked into these discussions but try to understand why 13% of users don’t approve the app, or why the machine makes 3,000 wrong parts per million. And then look up and ask oneself: is the app satisfying customers? Or one more thing that convinces them we’re hopeless? Was the machine the right investment? Or should we have fixed the problems in the previous process?

Yes, having set control points are useful, but they’re a starting point, not an endpoint. Going to the gemba with a rigid list of control points fully switches on motivated reasoning.

Then, as we look up and reflect on lean, we remind ourselves that we go to the gemba to develop people, not just to fix the system. What does that even mean? The first mental shift is hard enough:

Convince ourselves that everything is going as planned > look into issues and ask ourselves where this is all leading

The second shift is to wonder how the people in charge of the processes themselves see where they are going and what problems they’re working on:

Convince ourselves that everything is going as planned > look into issues and ask ourselves where this is all leading > understand how people see their situation and what they intend to do about it

A key feature of motivated reasoning is that it narrows down complex situations to the few things we can control. Because of the very complexity of operations, people that work in a process naturally pick one element – delivery on time, people cost, productivity, quality (rarely) and then optimize that, adjusting all other aspects of the job to keep that one variable steady. The tricky part is that this one variable that makes them run is largely hidden by, first, the multitude of conflicting indicators they’re asked to track and, second, their own thinking about what really matters to get ahead in this job.

In this respect, kaizen circles or problem-solving boards are very helpful because, as with visual management, you can look directly at the problems or improvements people are picking for themselves rather than have long, convoluted and contentious discussions about it. If asked about anything, people naturally react in either defend or demonstrate mode:

  • Defend: I don’t see why you ask, it’s all there, we’re doing everything right – no problem.
  • Demonstrate: Look at this, I’ll prove to you that we’re working hard at making this work – there you go.

Giddy Up

For humans, defend/demonstrate is the fight/flight response to being put on the spot, particularly by someone powerful. In defend mode, they fight for their corner and stand up for their team. In demonstrate mode, they flee from the questioning in showing that they’re diligent workers who do what they’re asked. Neither of these spontaneous responses is conducive to reflective thinking, which is why having visual boards that reveal what people are working on and how they’re looking at the issue is so valuable.

At this stage, on the gemba, leaders’ motivated thinking kicks in again. Leaders quickly see that what the teams are doing won’t get them where they’d hope to go (teams are grappling with local problems, not necessarily the strategic programs leaders want to see progress on). Leaders will then try to steer the team to more “interesting” problems and, essentially, to convince them of the importance of strategic initiatives as well as their daily work.

There is nothing wrong with that and, indeed, one of the key functions of gemba walks is to align all the company on its strategic vision – who better than the leader to explain where she wants to take the company and why? But that is not developing people. Although unavoidable, it’s yet another form of forcing them to solve problems so that our strategic vision gets realized (I’m not dismissing this as an essential way of getting things done – just not a developmental path). If we ever get to this stage, we’re ready for the fourth big leap: discuss priorities with local leaders so they understand which problems they should be tackling.

Convince ourselves that everything is going as planned à look into issues and ask ourselves where this is all leading à understand how people see their situation and what they intend to do about it à discuss the challenges and direction of the company so that local leaders look up, understand better where they’re heading and change their priorities for problem solving.

For each manager we’re trying to develop we should be asking the hard questions:


What problems do they solve on their own: take responsibility without being told and find a solution that fits the overall strategy.

What new problem they need to understand and tackle: explore something they don’t see or know how to solve out of their comfort zone.







These simple questions are really challenging. If we look at them in reflective mode, they can be very uncomfortable:

  • Why are they busy solving this problem right now? What is happening in the market or in their work environment we don’t know about or don’t understand that makes them have to face this – as it doesn’t seem to be so important in our set of a priori beliefs. Are we missing something?
  • What should they be working on instead? Are we clear enough in the practical implications of our strategic intention to explain it concretely to the manager, and why this is such an issue until they get it and set themselves up for being stretched and tacking it?

I’d argue that having a system to schedule gemba walks and keep track on which topics key people are working is very useful. On the other hand, any system will tend to reinforce motivated reasoning and become solipsistic in its own way. Gemba walks need to remain open-ended to stimulate curiosity and reflective thinking – both on the part of leadership and people on the ground. In that sense, any system of “virtual gemba walks” is unlikely to help. As always with lean, it’s not about the tool in itself – but the intent of how to use it.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Steve Bell March 6, 2020

Nice reflection Michael, thank you. I think you are pointing (tangentially) to a very important issue that we all face: the convergence of technology and Lean Thinking in general, and the many misuses of technology that we see every day.

Having spent the better part of two decades experimenting and learning how to utilize emerging technology to Lean (and Agile) Thinking (and having been honored with two Shingo Prizes as a result) I would say this is one of the thorniest problems of our day – with the rapid globalization of commerce: the trend towards globally architected companies, employing value streams that span the globe, and teams that often inhabit multiple locations, time zones, languages, and cultures, striving to work together, with shared purpose and a smooth flow.

The question, in my mind, has become “what IS Gemba”, and what does it mean to “go” there? In a globally distributed supply chain, serving customers around the globe, it’s the individual events, experiences and flows – of the customers who receive the value, and of those doing the work, regardless of where they are. And this holistic representation of Gemba is often only available electronically. Big data and machine learning have recently shown us that they can help us to spot patterns and problems not visible on the ground. “Virtual Gemba” isn’t a replacement to actual, face to face Gemba, but often it’s a necessary and useful complement.

In a globally distributed company, value stream, or team – immediate communication and collaboration, shared learning and knowledge curation, supported by visualized workflows and management, are essential. And these often cannot be accomplished without some degree of technology. But there should always be a focus on Analog (versus Digital) experiential learning whenever possible. A wall of sticky notes with a team of people interacting directly, is better than any virtual facsimile, and an effort should be made to create such cognitively rich experiences for learning and growth whenever possible.

As always, it’s a question of finding the right balance in the moment.

Owen Berkeley-Hill March 9, 2020

Thank you, Michael: a great article!

Does anyone remember Kaplan & Norton’s Balanced Scorecard? I’m not sure if it was the inspiration, but I remember a few decades back when screen savers were in fashion and someone developed a screen saver which would give the leadership all the information (KPIs?) they needed so they would not have to leave their bridge (a.k.a. Mahogany Row or the Executive Suite).  I also remember the Peters and Waterman book, In Search of Excellence (1982), which recommended MBWA (Management By Wandering Around). This was, perhaps, one of the first attempts to understand Genchi Genbutsu, but it was so poor in just what to do when you wandered about that it was soon regarded as Management By Wandering Aimlessly.

The point I am making is that the vast majority of leaders, even today, prefer to have people come to them with their problems, usually presented by PowerPoint, and in the frightening atmosphere of the boardroom.  Neither three or four decades of Lean, nor Tom Peters have convinced them of this radically different form of leadership might be miles better for the organisation. It might also be beneficial to them, hopefully delaying the onset of morbid obesity and possibility diabetes.

The problem I have is that the Lean movement seems to avoid confronting the prevailing leadership culture of Command & Control and what is taught to millions of MBA students around the globe, and so one can understand why Lean does not have a seat at the table as Dr Steven Spear described in his Lean Post article last October:  (https://www.lean.org/LeanPost/Posting.cfm?LeanPostId=1085#commentTop)

Regarding the difficulty of practicing Genchi Genbutsu in today’s world of long global supply chains, yes, this might be a problem but it did not seem to worry past leaders of large organisations who had a different leadership philosophy. Unfortunately, they are not recognised today as thinking Lean (perhaps because they were not Japanese?). Can anyone remember Delta Airlines in the 70s and 80s?  At that time, it was consistently profitable in a very volatile sector. It also had a great reputation for customer service. It’s CEO, David Garrett Jr, made it a practice to visit every one of Delta’s stations (over 200 in those days) and talk to the people at the coalface without their supervision present.  Can anyone remember the employees of Delta contributing their bonuses in order to gift Delta a Boeing 767?

Technology might help, but the people developing IT technology do not have a visceral understanding of Lean and so they will continue to develop apps which they think will help the sedentary leader do a better job. Unless Lean can change the thinking of the vast majority of today’s leaders (and tomorrow’s leaders by making sure every B-School bases its MBA on a solid Lean foundation) we will continue to see inappropriate apps being developed by people who think technology beats people every time.

May I also take this opportunity to ask the Great and Good of Lean to induct David Garrett Jr into the Lean Hall of Fame; or to start one if it does not exist so this great leader can be inducted.

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