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improvement, leadership, lean thinking

The Many Benefits of Going to Gemba

You can observe a lot by watching.” – Yogi Berra

One of the basics of lean thinking is connecting to gemba.  Attempting to create a lean culture without establishing a habit of Go and See – at least at the leadership level – will likely result in poor results and disappointment.

What is not always understood, though, it that effectively instilling a culture of go and see requires much more than just visiting gemba.  The real benefits of the effort occur when leaders truly connect with the workplace in such a way to gain an understanding of what is really going on.

Why it’s Important

The reasons and benefits of building and continually strengthening a connection with the workplace include the following:

  • Showing Respect: Respecting people is one of the fundamental elements of lean thinking, and visiting the shop floor to talk with people, understand their issues, listen to their ideas, and help them succeed is one of the best ways to show respect;
  • Seeing the Problems: Leaders need to know what is really going on in the workplace, and regular visits to gemba is an excellent way to do this. Whether visiting the shop floor, a service center, or customer sites, connecting with gemba is necessary to overcome the natural tendency of people to hide problems from leaders;
  • Improving Catchball: The catchball process is critical to focusing efforts and continually improving toward the company’s vision. When leaders are closely connected to the workplace, the catchball conversations can begin at a higher level and be much more effective;
  • Understanding What Help is Needed: The job of a leader is to enable the teams he or she leads to succeed.  Doing this requires a clear understanding of the barriers and frustrations of team members – something that can only occur through regular visits to gemba;
  • More Effective Support: Those who are tasked with supporting the shop floor will do a much better job when they connect with the people they support and understand firsthand the problems and issues they face;
  • Coaching & Developing People: Effectively coaching and developing people requires regular contact in real situations. Regular visits to the workplace to engage team members in conversations around problems can help develop the ability to address the problems on a daily basis.

Creating the Culture

Creating the habit of go and see requires understanding the cultural barriers to open and honest communication around the problems people face.  If leaders rarely show up in the workplace or do it only when major problems occur, people will tend to hide problems and avoid interactions, setting the organization up for sub-optimization or much more significant problems in the future.

Coaching through the initial visits is critical to assure that the right conversations are taking place during the visits.  It is also important to get people to understand that a “gemba walk” (a term I’ve never liked) is much more than a walk, and actually includes observation and learning.

Establishing a connection between the company’s leaders and gemba will break down a significant barrier to transformation that, although difficult to recognize, is necessary to drive improvement.  Lean is a great way to make the vision a reality but, without a connection to gemba, will result in little more than frustration, disappointment, and unsustainable gains.

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About Gregg Stocker

Gregg Stocker is a lean advisor for Hess Corporation. He possesses over 20 years experience in a variety of disciplines including operations, manufacturing, human resources, quality, and strategic planning, and has worked in manufacturing, service, and oil & gas industries. He has extensive international experience, including successfully leading an $65 million business in The Netherlands. He authored the book, “Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral: Recognizing & Eliminating the Signs of Decline,” (Quality Press, 2006) and was a contributing author to "The Lean Handbook," (Quality Press, 2012). Gregg is a frequent speaker and recognized expert in business and performance improvement having been interviewed on television, radio, and in a number of newspaper and magazine articles including The New York Times, Washington Post, BusinessWeek, and InformationWeek. Gregg has implemented change in organizations ranging in size from $10 million to more than $100 billion. He is a team-oriented leader who achieves results by improving teamwork, focus, and communication throughout the organization.

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