Resolved: Tis Better to be in the Gemba

There were a couple of articles in the WSJ this past week that, in an indirect way, talk about the value of being at the “gemba” as a manager (gemba is a Japanese word that means “the actual place” where work is happening). The gemba might be your factory floor (Toyota’s Gary Convis famously moved his plant manager office into the middle of the gemba) or a hospital (the place where patients are being treated).

Common lean thinking is that leaders and managers have to get out to the gemba, they can’t rely on management reports and having meetings in their executive suite. As Toyota folks like to say, problems aren’t solved in the conference room, you have to go to the gemba and work with the people who are actually doing the work or dealing with the specific problem.

Why Running a Franchise Is Easier Than Ever (June 25)

Hat tip to my dad for sending this, showing a contrast with my “gemba-driven” cab company owner from the UK. If you remember, the cab company driver insisted on driving a cab (being in the “gemba” as we might say in the lean world, to make sure he understood employee and customer issues first hand.

The WSJ had an article that suggested some franchise business experts now say many franchises can pretty much run on auto pilot, with new technologies to track employees and sales. The appeal is that you don’t have to be there, or at least hardly at all, that you can run the business off of reports. Uh oh. A gemba thinker might see the downside to that hands-off management:

Certainly such diversification and absenteeism has drawbacks. “The further away you are from being physically present, in a retail situation in particular, the more things can happen that are not good,” Mr. Johnson says. He offers a small but telling example: sun reflecting off a misplaced display board may seem a tiny matter but would be of importance to a hands-on owner.

Those tiny matters can add up. Says Ms. Dugan at the University of Pittsburgh: “Any business, whether it’s a franchise or not, takes a lot of work.” She cautions that without careful management, working part time “won’t provide the return you’re looking for.”

And the movement carries some risks for franchisers themselves. Experts caution that all the technological advances might paint a false sense of security…

A good manager, in any situation, shouldn’t be tied to the gemba 100%, but you can’t expect a business to run itself, you have to provide leadership and oversight.

Top Brass Try Life in the Trenches (June 25)

Here’s an article that talks about companies that have programs to get the bosses out to the gemba:

By 11:30 a.m. one recent day, Carolyn Kibler had been on her feet for nearly six hours, shuttling among 16 dialysis patients at a DaVita Inc. clinic here. Her lower back ached from the unaccustomed strain.

Ms. Kibler is a vice president of the nation’s No. 2 dialysis-treatment operator, earning a comfortable six-figure salary while overseeing 48 other clinics. For three days this spring, however, she helped treat seriously ill patients alongside technicians working up to 13-hour days for an average of $14.30 an hour. “The job is definitely more physically demanding than I had imagined,” the 48-year-old executive admits.

That’s precisely the point, according to DaVita Chief Executive Kent J. Thiry, who created the immersion program for his senior managers in 2002. “The experience changes their view of the world,” he says. “They are better leaders as a result.”

That sounds like a good thing, letting executives get a sense for how work is really done and what front line employees really deal with (good or bad). I don’t know how many hospital CEO’s go spend time with nurses, but I’d suspect it’s low. And I mean significant time, such as shadowing them for a shift or at least a few hours. Going to “the gemba” isn’t meant to be a superficial fly-by, you have to really observe and talk with people (listening more than talking).

Here’s another great sounding example:

About 150 officials of Loews Hotels must spend a day every year in an entry-level job at one of its 18 U.S. and Canadian hotels. They share impressions with employees in their temporary departments and solicit ideas for making those jobs easier. One result: installation of handle bars on room-service carts so they are easier for waiters to push.

When out at the gemba, you don’t want to come in as the outsider and start throwing ideas around. It’s better to listen for ideas that the value-adding employees have themselves. As a gemba visitor, you can ask questions, but it’s rude to come in as an know-it-all from the executive suite.

If you come into the gemba with the wrong attitude, it could backfire:

…such programs can increase cynicism among the rank and file, Mr. Lawler cautions. Executives’ rare appearances in the trenches may suggest “these people really are out of touch,” he says.

The CIO of the dialysis company made a curious comment, probably a bad choice of words on his part:

After the program, Mr. Cleaver accelerated plans to extend the training period for new analysts on the company’s computer help desk, and lowered his expectations of productivity from such new hires. Before Reality 101, he notes, “I never really realized how incompetent entry-level people are when they start their jobs.”

Now if he means that they need a better training program or better standardized work for new employees, that’s OK. But if he got a bad impression and thought his employees were stupid or unskilled, that might be a bit of a condescending view of his employees. It makes you wonder if there is “respect for people” there or not?

Now, get out to the gemba!! You can share your reports of the value of gemba time here by clicking “comments.”

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Mark Graban's passion is creating a better, safer, more cost effective healthcare system for patients and better workplaces for all. Mark is a consultant, author, and speaker in the "Lean healthcare" methodology. He is author of the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, as well as The Executive Guide to Healthcare Kaizen. His most recent project is an eBook titled Practicing Lean that benefits the Louise H. Batz Patient Safety Foundation, where Mark is a board member. Mark is also the VP of Improvement & Innovation Services for the technology company KaiNexus.

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