What Leaders Should Do on the Gemba

June 4, 2015
It's time to turn off your computer, put your walking shoes on and go out on the gemba.

Many manufacturing leaders are quick to admit they spend too much time in meetings and in front of the computer, and not enough time on the factory floor. Those spreadsheets and dashboards may provide an overview of operations but they also can diminish the first-hand experience of seeing how plant operations are functioning.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower put his finger on the problem, Eric Lussier told attendees at the IW Best Plants Conference in May, when he wrote: "Farming is easy when your pencil is the plow and you're 1,000 miles from the field."

Lussier, vice president, Operational Excellence at Handy & Harman Ltd., is a strong proponent of gemba walks -- going to "the real place," as the Japanese word means, and very purposefully observing what is going on on the factory floor.

In a simple sense, he said, leaders on the gemba are trying to gain a better understanding of the value stream they are observing and find out what they can do to help it function better.

Leaders aren't only out to observe physical processes, Lussier cautioned. They should also be seeking to understand the people and their issues better.

The gemba walk is an opportunity for leaders 'to show respect, to communicate and build trust.'

—Eric Lussier, vice president, Operational Excellence at Handy & Harman Ltd.

"Are the people working on things that are important to the customer?" he pointed out. "Are there issues?"

Lussier also stressed that there is a difference between going on the gemba "to be seen and going to see." He said the gemba is an opportunity to learn and communicate. He warned against going with preconceived notions or seeing it as an opportunity to lecture employees.

"It is an opportunity for us to show respect, to communicate and build trust," he said.

Handy & Harman, a diversified manufacturer of industrial products such as tubing and building materials, has been on its lean journey for seven years, Lussier told attendees. The company has 1,500 employees at 27 locations in eight countries. Handy & Harman developed an operating system, called the H&H Business System, to tie the company together and build a common culture that focuses on people and processes. A foundation of that culture is the quest to identify and solve problems.

Handy & Harman uses +QDIP boards, typically 6-foot-by-4-foot boards, in departments to provide a quick visual update on performance. The boards are used to track safety, quality, delivery, inventory and productivity. Green and red are used to indicate whether goals are being met or not.

The object with the boards, said Lussier, is not to have only green results but to provide a conduit for communication and problem-solving. The gemba walks offer an important conduit for furthering that goal, he stated.

About the Author

Steve Minter | Steve Minter, Executive Editor

Focus: Leadership, Global Economy, Energy

Call: 216-931-9281

Follow on Twitter: @SgMinterIW

An award-winning editor, Executive Editor Steve Minter covers leadership, global economic and trade issues and energy, tackling subject matter ranging from CEO profiles and leadership theories to economic trends and energy policy. As well, he supervises content development for editorial products including the magazine,, research and information products, and conferences.

Before joining the IW staff, Steve was publisher and editorial director of Penton Media’s EHS Today, where he was instrumental in the development of the Champions of Safety and America’s Safest Companies recognition programs.

Steve received his B.A. in English from Oberlin College. He is married and has two adult children.

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