Common sense says that you can understand and learn a lot about your business by spending time at the workplace, where the production is, where the customers are, where value is created.
That’s what we call the gemba in lean theory, the real place.
So why do we see so few CEO on the shop floor? How much of his time does a CEO spend on the gemba on average? Probably less than 10% although it should be at least 50%.
At Aramisauto, we have learnt to lead from the gemba. But this learning process has been long and difficult!
Aramisauto has been created in 2001 and has developed a unique system of buying and selling cars in France. We sell new and used cars, mainly over the internet but also operate 30 points of sale in France and a refurbishing facility to offer high quality used cars. Since 2017 we have developed operations in Spain and Belgium too.
When we first started our company, everything was gemba: with very few employees, you are connected to your customers, to your sales, to your purchasing department (in fact, you are the purchasing department).
But as the company grows, month after month, and you learn to delegate, you lose contact with reality, this magic touch. And you end up “leading” your company from the boardroom where middle management comes to report on how things work and how things don’t and what they plan to do to fix it. And you get this sinking feeling that, even though you trust your teams, reality is probably not what they tell you with PowerPoint.
At this stage, going to the gemba becomes difficult for the CEO and the executive committee. They don’t feel welcome, they don’t feel this is useful time spent. Many CEOs will tell you they spend time on the floor. But those visits are often tourist or diplomatic visits. Kings of old touring their lands. Everything is perfectly prepared: problems and difficulties are hidden, and a slideshow is ready to explain how the team succeeds. Half of the time is spent in the meeting room; and at the end of the visit, if everything went well, the CEO congratulates the team and feels satisfied for his good work visiting his teams.
Does it give him a good idea of how the business goes and of how to help people to better serve their customers? Not really.
In 2016 when we really started our lean transformation (I mean when we started to work with a sensei and stopped consultants), we asked our teams to write their problems and our customers’ problems on boards at the workspace. Then we encouraged them to display (still on boards, not on computers) the flow of their activity. Finally, we asked them to display kaizen (improvement projects) they were working on. In almost every team, this ended with the creation of an obeya room.
Then the magic happened!
Now, in our gemba walks we can have deeper conversations with our teams. We understand better what they are working on, what their problems are, how they work on our customers’ problems. Those boards are their every-day opportunities to drive activity and projects. As opposed to PowerPoint presentations, the boards don’t lie.
These boards became the starting points to deep discussions to understand better how to help our people to do better for our customers.
Another thing we always do on the gemba: deep dives. Starting with the problems we read on the boards, we go to the floor to observe how things are really happening. This can apply to how we welcome customers in our point of sales (then we can spend hours just observing what really happens when customers enter the point of sales) or how we change a wheel on a car in our refurbishing facility.
We do this until everybody shares the same vision of what really happens. More often than not, this is different from what people first told us. These deep dives have become the source of our strategic challenges.
I was recently in one of our point of sales, in Montpellier, and once again could experience this Magic of the gemba. As you can expect in that kind of business, the team was very concerned about succeeding in welcoming the customers. That led them to work on a project to better welcome their customer when arriving on the point of sales. They started to explain us what they where working on from a kaizen board in their meeting room. Interesting, thanks to this visual board, we could have explanations on what they are working on and what they had in mind. This was a very good tool to start the conversation with the team.
But we were not convinced by what they were explaining us, that was not clear enough.
So we decided to go and see at the floor how things were really happening. We then discovered a very different reality from what was first explained on the boards. Customers were not welcomed twice the same way, the waiting time was longer than expected, and we saw many other abnormalities! But as we were all sharing the same experience, there was no discussion about the reality and the team and the management could quickly reach a consensus on what was going wrong and on what they must work on first.
That’s where the Magic is: from the gemba and the reality that it is far easier to align the team on the real problem they have to work on. And this leads the to the right things to do, without any order or instruction to be given.
To reconnect with the reality of your business, go to the gemba. But first ask your people to display and visualize their flow, and you will discover unexpected opportunities for growth. We did!