As I was researching our upcoming post on the Pioneers of Lean Leadership, I came across a quote by Taiichi Ohno, one of the fathers of the Toyota Way and Kaizen. On the subject of Gemba walks, he said, “When you go out into the workplace, you should be looking for things that you can do for your people there. You’ve got no business in the workplace if you’re just there to be there. You’ve got to be looking for changes you can make for the benefit of the people who are working there.”
This is a deeply important idea that encapsulates the purpose of going to the Gemba as well as the difference between Gemba walks and management by walking around. I especially appreciate that he focused on making changes to benefit the people who are doing the work, not simply to reduce waste or cut costs. When workers feel productive and engaged, amazing results can occur.
I wondered if other leaders had thought-provoking things to say about Gemba walks and it turns out they certainly do. Here are a few gems.
“Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil, and you're a thousand miles from the corn field.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower”
Granted “Ike” isn’t probably the first person who springs to mind when thinking about Lean management techniques, but his point is relevant nonetheless. It is easy to blame personnel for every problem that comes up if you don’t have firsthand knowledge of the conditions under which value is produced. The best way to put yourself in the position to help solve problems is to go and see for yourself.
“There are three kinds of leaders. Those that tell you what to do. Those that allow you to do what you want. And Lean leaders that come down to the work and help you figure it out.” - John Shook
John Shook is an “industrial anthropologist” who advises individuals and organizations who wish to understand and implement Lean. He is the author of the excellent book Managing To Learn and was awarded the 2009 Shingo Prize for excellence in manufacturing research and publication. What is important about his comment is that Lean leaders don’t visit the Gemba to dictate how to do the work. They come in order to help the workers themselves find the surest path to success. Gemba walks are intended to be collaborative, never punitive.
“The frequency of leadership going to the Gemba is inversely proportional to the number of walls separating them from the Gemba.” – Jon Miller
Jon Miller is the former CEO of Kaizen Institute, and co-author of the outstanding book Creating a Kaizen Culture: Align the Organization, Achieve Breakthrough Results, and Sustain the Gains. Jon also did a webinar for us a few years back. We think his idea about walls separating leaders from the Gemba works on both a physical and conceptual level. Of course, it follows that when management is physically removed from the spaces where work is done useful interaction and observation will be less frequent. We have also noted cultural “walls” that distance leaders from front-line workers. The most effective organizations eliminate barriers of all types that limit open communication and trust between leaders and workers.
“All walks should help the leader learn what is really happening and at the same time focus on helping people to maintain their dignity. This can only happen if the leaders create a safe place to have a conversation, and they show respect to the people they encounter along the way. Why would anyone openly discuss problems in their work area if he or she will be embarrassed once workplace issues are revealed, or if the walker looks as if he or she is trying to catch someone doing something wrong?” - Michael Bremer
Michael Bremer’s book How to Do a Gemba Walk is a great read for anyone interested in the best practices for effective walks. His emphasis on the dignity of the worker and the need to develop trust is key. That’s why it is important that employees understand the purpose of the Gemba walk, know what to expect, and have input into the changes that occur as a result. Effective Gemba walks create insights that could not have otherwise been achieved. This means asking smart questions and getting honest answers. Mutual respect is an absolute requirement.
It’s funny how often we end a blog by saying this, but Gemba Walks, like many other Lean techniques are not complicated. But the devil is in the details and without careful execution, a lot can go wrong. Hopefully, these ideas from accomplished Lean leaders will inspire you to focus on the finer points the next time you head for the Gemba.