Going to the Gemba

Sept. 8, 2011
Far from a stroll on the plant floor, a gemba represents a purposeful attempt to learn what is really going on.

The term "gemba" has gone in the lean community from obscure to ubiquitous, as popular as terms like kaizen. But through the growth in its use, there has also been a growth in its misuse. How do we make this work?

Gemba means "the real place" and is intended to get you to the location where something is really going on, whether a news story or a sporting event or a factory floor. It's use has grown to include a more comprehensive approach. First, it requires a deep curiosity to know what is really going on. Not what you assume is going on, or what you heard is going on, but what is really going on.

Second, it implies a skill of direct observation of how work is performed. The goal of gemba behaviors is to understand the current reality of a situation more clearly. We prefer these words, direct observation, because it states what you are doing. But the words are less important than the behavior.

Third, it demonstrates a principle of respect for people. This is because you go to where work is performed and engage people directly, not assuming you know the answer from a distance. One of my favorite quotes is from Dwight Eisenhower: "Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you're 1,000 miles from the corn field." Here are four steps that may make going to the gemba more successful.

1. Identify your purpose. Too often, people go out to observe without a purpose. Even Wikipedia compares the concept of gemba to the 1990s concept of Management By Walking Around (MBWA). But this doesn't mean to just go for a stroll. Without a purpose, MBWA is really Management By Wandering Aimlessly.

Why are you going to observe? What are you trying to learn by going to the gemba? If you can't answer these questions, then don't start.

2. Know your gemba. I see people refer to the gemba as the factory floor, as if they were synonymous. This is true if the problem relates to the factory floor. And there is no question that people should be spending more time there understanding what is going on. But this isn"t the only gemba.

There are problems that require observation in the board room, or at the customer, or on the shipping docks, or in the control room. The point is, the gemba is wherever the activity is performed that you are trying to learn and understand. Find the point of activity; this is your gemba.

3. Observe with a framework. There is a difference between looking around, and observing. The primary difference comes from the framework through which you observe. Do you just see what is on the surface? Do you see equipment, people, and material?

Or do you have a framework that helps you digest, analyze and communicate what you are observing? We use a lens and a language of looking at work performed as activities, connections and flows. Whether in the board room or on the shop floor, all work is made up of these components.

4. Validate what you see. The easiest thing to do is to assume that what we see is a true representation of reality. However, there are often many things that cannot be seen on the surface. These may include decisions made during the process in people's heads, abnormalities that were recognized because we did not know the norm or variations from one person to the next that we did not observe.

Once you have captured your observations, it is best to test and validate your conclusions with those doing the work. This is not the only input, but it is one way to understand if you have a good handle on the current reality.

Going to the gemba has become popular for the simple reason that it is powerfully effective. But there is more to it than getting up from your desk, as even this simple explanation attempts to demonstrate.

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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