When you are out observing on the gemba, do something to help them. If you do, people will come to expect that you can help them and will look forward to seeing you again on the gemba.
– Taiichi Ohno
I briefly introduced you to the concept of the gemba earlier in this book. The definition of gemba is “the real place” or “where value is created,” i.e., the production floor in a manufacturing company or a surgical ward in a hospital, and so forth.
Traditional business gurus talk about MBWA: management by walking around. What is that, really? Wandering around for what reason? What does that accomplish, besides perhaps provoking some fear?
Walking the gemba is different. You go to where value is being created and do more than just walk. You observe the process and ask questions, such as: What is the ideal state? What is the standard? Is there a problem? What is causing the gap between the ideal and the current state? You also check with the area manager to see if she sees the same things you do. Respect your team by helping them see the gemba the way you do, and listen to them describe what they see.
Use the gemba walk as a daily method to observe the process, identify areas for improvement, support kaizen, and mentor others. During problem solving, your leadership team should be at the gemba observing the problem, not in a conference room discussing it
In many Lean organizations, you will also see managers, executives—even presidents—with their desks at the gemba so they can observe it throughout the day. When my own team decided to put our offices on the second floor of a new building, we faced some potential downsides by being away from where the work was being done. However, our production operators and supervisors were developing rapidly and becoming independent and confident in their capabilities, so we felt that if we put our executive team on the shop floor, we would stymie that growth, which wouldn’t be respecting people.
On the other hand, consider what I witnessed at the Sheraton Hongqiao in Shanghai a few years ago. As I walked into the bustling lobby of this large hotel, a man was working at a desk on the side. It was Thomas Mueller, the hotel’s general manager. Mueller would work from that desk most of the day, able to directly observe the key gemba of his operation. Despite being very busy, he welcomed questions from guests, and if he had to leave for a few minutes, his assistant took over. Working in a bustling lobby probably wasn’t the most productive location, but for him it was the most valuable one.
If you want to find out what is truly going on at your company, get out of the office or conference room and go and see what is happening where value is being created. Find the gemba and actively observe it, then look for ways to improve the work taking place there.