Gemba is one of those Japanese words that are used frequently by Lean Practitioners and the use of these terms is sometimes perceived as being intended to mystify what should be simple concepts. However, I'm an advocate of their use where they truly differentiate from their English (or French, German, Chinese, Dutch, etc.) equivalent in terms of meaning and when their usage is effectively explained to the audience.
To this end there are a few Japanese / Lean terms that I often use, as I believe that each of them truly describes and communicates an intent that their English equivalent can't and provides me with the opportunity to teach my audience the meaning without any pre-existing prejudice. Gemba is one of those such words (I have listed a few others at the end of the article), as its translation, the place where the work is done or workplace, just doesn't describe sufficiently the meaning of 'Go to Gemba'.
If I say to someone that they must 'Go to the Workplace' or 'Go to where the work is done' this could be interpreted in multiple ways and may not be in the manner in which we intended. It is true that we could teach the full meaning but what the term 'Go to Gemba' allows us to do is to not only teach an effective way of applying Lean Thinking but to create a mantra that all team members can challenge themselves and their colleagues with on an on-going basis.
The fact of life for most organisations is that they have many and multiple problems and that a lot of these problems manifest themselves as issues that land on the desk (or in the email) of people at least one level above the work floor. It is common that these team members try to solve these problems through email, meetings or Skype calls, without the full facts and without the insight of the people actually doing the work. This often results in sub-optimal countermeasures or over-processing, caused by problem solving the symptoms rather than the root cause(s). Click here to read more on this subject.
What we all ought to do is the practice of 'Go to Gemba', whereby we go, physically, to the work floor and problem solve with the people who do the work. Better still, if we enable, through training, coaching and empowerment, the people who do the work to solve the problems themselves, as they happen, we can ensure that problems are solved at the Gemba on a daily basis. In fact, in an Operationally Excellent organisation, we would expect to see that around 85% off all problems (by quantity) are solved at the work floor team member level and that, when escalations are made, the people who support the team members do so at the Gemba.
Often we find ourselves with problems escalated to us even though we are sitting in an office hundreds, or even thousands, of kilometres from the workplace, meaning that we are unable to be physically present at the Gemba at short-notice. In this case, there are some questions that we must answer, in a specific order:
1. Am I the right person to solve this problem or is someone at the Gemba better suited to solve it? Has it been escalated to me for hierarchal rather than true problem solving reasons?
If the answer to this question is that someone else should be solving the problem, then it makes sense to delegate to them and to support them through coaching and providing them with the empowerment to do so. If the answer to this question is that we are the correct person to solve this problem, then we should move to the second question. However, before doing so we should consider carefully if this is truly the case or whether we are disabling or, even worse, failing to hold people at the Gemba accountable for solving the problem.
Assuming that we still believe that we are the correct person to own the problem solving, then we need to consider question 2:
2. Am I getting as close to the Gemba as I can, engaging with the team members at the Gemba through virtual means (Skype, Lync or Telephone, minimising the use of email) and am I working on a fact basis, truly deriving the facts of the problem and drilling down to understand the root cause(s)?
By taking the time to consider both of these questions, we are more likely to set ourselves up for success.
Modern, global organisations make it more challenging to delegate the problem solving to the Gemba team members, as we tend to have many people in global or regional roles who have responsibility for multiple locations and processes stretching across geographies. However, it is my experience that, in many cases, it is still possible to delegate the problem solving to those people at the Gemba. To do so we must have the willingness and right mind-set in place with both the senior and junior members of the team.
Going to Gemba (Genchi Genbutsu) is one of the 14 Toyota Principles and is essential if we are to avoid symptom problem solving or problem solving at such a high level that the proposed solution takes too long due to its complexity. Go to Gemba means much more than its English translation and is a way of thinking and a belief that the problem can only be solved if we are where the problem actually occurs.
This is uncomfortable for many leaders and a barrier to operational excellence for many organisations. Nevertheless, it is eminently possible with the right mindset and belief that:
"The Problem's at the Gemba; Solve it at the Gemba"
I was thinking about the fundamentals of Operational Excellence during some Hansei time and, no matter which way I look at it, I believe that the foundation is a Quality Mindset and that 5S (Work place Organisation) has to be the fundament of this.
A trigger to this reflection was remembering a story told to me by an ex-Group Leader at Toyota, turned Lean Consultant:
One day in their Engine Plant in Deeside, a Toyota Lean Sensei was visiting from Japan and was walking through the plant. They were proudly showing him the efficiency of their operations and he complimented them on their 5S, which made them very proud.
Effective 5S is an enabler of a Quality Mind-set and one of the first things that I learnt about Lean Thinking is:
"If you can't do 5S, you can't do Lean"
However, although still predominantly seen as a manufacturing 'Lean Tool', 5S is the essence of Lean Thinking and is just as necessary (probably more so) in the office environment, as much waste is created due to the mismanagement and disorganisation found in many knowledge and administrative systems.
Errors due to multiple versions of the same document, email strings that are reacted to at different points and a general misalignment of standards are massive and create rework and defect levels in the office environment that would simply not be tolerated in a manufacturing environment.
It is therefore crucial that we all ensure, regardless of where we are in the organisation, that our 5S is a central focus of our Lean Deployment and the basis of our Operational Excellence.
"I aim to promote the global sharing of best practices in the application of Lean Thinking."