My mother was a pioneer in LEAN business methodologies. (Learn, examine, analyze, and notate.) Oh, she never had any training in LEAN tool application but she was an expert in learning what I was doing, examining how well I had completed a chore, analyzing whether or not I needed to do it all over, and notating my mistakes. Mom was a pioneer. And, how did she know how things were going? Gemba! My mother practiced gemba. She observed me, where the work was occurring.

Gemba is the Japanese term for actual place, meaning where the value is. The place where value is made. Where the work happens. You might think of it as the place where billable work occurs. In manufacturing this is the shop floor. In a call center, it is the place where folks are actually on the phone. In a hospital, the value is where patient contact is made. This concept can be applied to any environment. Using my childhood example, the value was in getting the dishes done right the first time. (My mother did not have any qualms about making me do it over to get it right.)

Officially, what is gemba? It is to go where the value is. The Lean Lexicon tells us, “The term [gemba] often is used to stress that real improvement requires a shop-floor focus based on direct observation of current conditions where work is done. For example, standardized work for a machine operator cannot be written at a desk in the engineering office, but must be defined and revised on the gemba.”
Gemba is also a verb. For people leaders to gemba is to intentionally get up from their desk chair and go to observe the work being completed. This is similar to the management by walking around premise, from years ago. (MBWA) However, the difference is in engagement of the employees performing the value-added work. In fact, employee engagement is key to gemba.

In this blog we seek to help readers differentiate themselves as courageous leaders when compared to your run of the mill everyday leader or manager. This practice of intentionally building gemba into your management routine with a regular cadence is another tool that will set you apart. But, make no mistake gemba takes courage. Observing the current conditions of the work being done requires a strong stomach because it also requires interaction with the folks performing the value-added work, and most likely some sort of following action. Here are some guidelines on how to employ gemba in your leader standard work.

1. Intentionally build time into your calendar to go to where the value is on a regular basis. Some companies subscribe to a LEAN business environment such that they employ Standard Work as a tool to drive rigor in work routines. Leader Standard Work is a tool that helps managers build discipline into a certain percentage of their time, removing variation from their calendar to some extent. Regardless of whether or not you choose to apply such a tool, thinking in terms of building standard tasks into part of your day is the key. And going to where the work is completed is a critical part of that regular schedule.

For leaders with remote, or multiple sites, visiting in person cannot be substituted with telephone calls or video conferences. You have to actually go visit the site. Walk around. Talk with employees. Ask questions. Answer questions. Observe behaviors. Examine outcomes. Problem solve with folks. Be available. Watch. Listen. Remove barriers for the employees, so they can accomplish their goals. Provide feedback. Be present.

2. Engage the employees you encounter as you gemba. The difference between the old philosophy of management by walking around and gemba is employee engagement. The gemba way is that leaders remove barriers and provide resources necessary so that employees can achieve their goals. Provide an atmosphere that encourages employee engagement in analyzing problems and creating sustainable solutions. This approach puts the capability for problem solving with the folks that do the work every day and are involved most closely. Enable this capability. Trust them to deliver on this expectation.

The Pauline letters of the Bible are an excellent example of gemba. The Apostle Paul visited all of his sites, so to speak, and observed. He watched, listened, built capabilities, enabled folks to remain engaged, and provided an atmosphere for growth. And after each gemba he provided feedback to leaders in writing; a letter. Sometimes the observations led to praise and repeatability. Sometimes the result was continuous improvement and corrective action. Always the goal of gemba, or going to where the value-added work is actually being done, is to observe and provide meaningful involvement so as to drive improvement.

How’s your courageous leadership style? Do you gemba?

About Beth Gifford

Change agent, business executive, Pastor's wife, and mom having a great life!
This entry was posted in 21st Century Leadership, Courageous Leadership in Business and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to GEMBA!

  1. Rich Cary says:

    Outstanding! This is such an important aspect of leadership. Even in the church we have seen a move away from this concept. From pastors who adopt a CEO model that eliminates “non-value added” tasks like personal visits in favor of programs to elders who don’t have time to shepherd because of building programs and finances…love the reference to Paul’s Gemba!

    • Beth Gifford says:

      Thanks for participating in the conversation, Rich. Without personal observation it is impossible for leaders to gain a realistic assessment of their organization. This is essential in business, and effective churches.

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