For individuals working the front lines in their careers, the question "They want us to do what?" has likely crossed their lips. Generally, when this statement is uttered, something like a new initiative has come down from the C-suite that seems impossible to implement. Those who have read my previous written work know I am a fan of the CBS television series Undercover Boss. The show's premise is that high-level executives alter their appearance so they can anonymously work rank-and-file jobs in their organization. Without exception, the leaders learn the negative impact of decisions made from the corner office without knowledge of the inner workings of their organization. In addition, they discover several significant failures that occurred by failing to go to Gemba.
"People who can't understand numbers are useless. The gemba where numbers are not visible is also bad. However, people who only look at numbers are the worst of all." – Taiichi Ohno
Gemba is a Japanese word that translates to "the real place." Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, would reject the idea of leaders making decisions on numbers alone. Instead, he would expect them to physically go to the workplace before making final decisions. Going to the area of interest allows leaders to observe, learn and understand, thus leading to the more significant potential to make more informed decisions.
An example of a lack of Gemba failure is a recent software purchase by a social service agency. The leadership chose a particular vendor without input from the program's users. As a result, those using the product experienced significant issues. It was apparent that the software developers needed a more extensive understanding of the users' work requirements. The results were frustration, inefficiencies, and implementation delays for these employees whose leaders should have included them in their decision-making. They should have asked those impacted by the potential purchase to do a pilot run of the program while observing, learning, and understanding the requirements of their essential work before issuing a purchase order.
Company leaders should regularly visit the organization's various areas to gain an objective perspective of the small details and how they impact the big picture. The walk's objectives should be to eliminate the waste of non-value-added work while simultaneously improving the opportunity for their employees to achieve their full potential. A Gemba walk includes the following steps:
1. Make a plan – Before the Gemba walk, the leaders should identify a specific area of the operation to maintain complete focus and avoid distractions. It is also beneficial to develop a standard set of questions for all Gemba walks and additional ones specific to that operational segment.
2. Invite others – An excellent practice is to complete the walk as a team. Other leaders with less knowledge of the work in the area will ask different questions than those more familiar with the operation.
3. Ask questions – Workers doing the various tasks have a breadth of knowledge of what works well and their challenges. Clearing the leader's mind of perceptions of what to expect allows an opportunity to understand the operation's current state more accurately.
4. It's about process observation – The employees in the focus area should have prior knowledge that the visit will occur. Additionally, the Gemba walk objective is to gain an accurate process view of existing hindrances and obstacles that surface as opportunities for improvement.
5. Only document and listen – Except for safety concerns, leaders should not attempt to rectify issues seen during the Gemba walk. Instead, the objective is to write down what is shared, document observations, draw diagrams, and take photos or videos that will be useful later on when considering improvement alternatives.
6. Schedule Gemba walks regularly and at different times – Gemba walks should become standard operating practice. In addition, visits should occur at other times of the day or night to gain a complete perspective of the operation. Talking with more employees allows for greater feedback and knowledge of the operation.
7. Return and connect with employees – The individuals working in the Gemba walk area should receive ongoing communication about the outcomes of the visit, alternative solutions under consideration to correct concerns, an opportunity for workers to provide feedback, the development of improvement plans, and the timing of the various initiatives.
Gemba walks provide leaders a significant opportunity to fully understand the current state of the operation while developing more profound levels of employee engagement by listening to worker concerns and eliminating them.
After collecting the information from the Gemba walk, the leaders should complete a follow-up process. A series of actions to consider are:
1. Identify opportunities to improve value-added work and eliminate non-value-added work.
2. Spend time digesting the information gathered during the visit to the operation.
3. Gather additional information necessary to effectively and efficiently address issues.
4. Maintain timely communication with employees about the next steps.
5. Develop solutions to reduce the eight types of waste.
6. Keep accurate records of the employees providing feedback in the visit areas with the intent to, over time, allow everyone to have the opportunity to provide their insight and address all areas of the organization.
7. Build the Gemba walk into the overall culture of continuous improvement.
8. Invite other leaders to learn the Gemba walk process and the benefits of meaningful post-walk actions.
The Gemba walk requires a robust post-walk element of the overall process to improve the organization continually. Then as the follow-up to the initial walk winds down, the next Gemba walk should begin.
We have all received a mandate from on high that makes us question the capability of our leadership. Unfortunately, when this occurred, leaders likely did not go to Gemba. As a result, they need help recognizing the valuable knowledge gained from observing, learning, and understanding by physically going to the workplace to inform their decisions. Leaders that embrace the effective use of Gemba have an opportunity to enhance employee engagement significantly.
Individuals interested in further exploring the topic of Gemba should review A simple guide to Gemba. The document provides a deeper overview of the Gemba walk, how to conduct one, follow-up instructions, templates, and checklists.
I have previously expressed gratitude for Taiichi Ohno's development of the Toyota Production System. In particular, leaders will not fully succeed as an organization if they fail to understand that organizational success is impossible without understanding the many small details and how they impact the big picture. Ohno clearly understood the value of engaging with those at the front lines of the organization to inform business decisions
Next week's blog will continue to explore steps to lessen the waste of human potential as it relates to humanist manufacturing.
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