Jeff Bezos at the Amazon Gemba

Curious at Amazon, but Not Idle – Bits Blog – NYTimes.com

Etech05: JeffThis piece about Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos made me think about visiting the “Gemba” (the Japanese term that means “the actual place” — the place where work is done).

There are a few different types of Gemba visits, ranging from ineffective to helpful. Drawing on personal work history, I’ll use a few examples:

Fake Gemba

As is typical in large manufacturing companies, when a top executive had a chance to visit the Gemba, it was usually very staged and planned out far in advance. When I worked at General Motors, if a VP was visiting, we knew about this weeks in advance. All sorts of things would get fixed and prettied up for the visit. Plant tours would be heavily scripted and the loud noises pretty much ensured that no real interaction could take place with real workers, as the tour guide (sometimes me) would have a microphone and the visitors would wear headsets so they could hear what was going on — or at least the version that we wanted to tell them.

A lesson I learned from all of this was that meaningful Gemba visits shouldn’t be staged. You could make the case that these visits (as well as inspections) should always be a surprise — that is, if you want to the “Real Gemba.”

Better Gemba

When I worked at Dell in late 90’s, Michael Dell himself would often just pop in. These surprise visits allowed him to see the Real Gemba. He would typically show up alone (word would spread that he had driven himself over in a white Porsche). He’d walk through the factory, without handlers or a tour guide or an entourage. Michael would stop and talk with people… he was seeing the Real Gemba (as long as people were willing to be open with him and not just tell him what he’d want to hear because he was the founder and CEO).

A lesson learned here might be that it’s not only important to visit the Gemba, but to also have an environment where people feel like they can speak openly. Some hospital CEOs make a point of trying to create an environment where it’s OK for people to speak up about problems, rather than covering things up, even to the point where it’s OK for someone to admit a mistake without fear. This keeps the focus on process improvement instead of blame.

Drive By Gemba

When I worked at Honeywell, one front line manager was proud of his morning routine. He’d brag, “The first thing I do each morning is walk around and say hi and shake the hand of every employee. It shows they’re important.”

He meant well, but to walk around and say hi to 30 people took some time, and he’d often race through the routine. By the time anyone could really answer the question, “How are ya doin’?”, he’d be off to the next employee. There was hardly ever any real interaction… it was Superficial Gemba.

The lesson learned here is to follow the pattern of Quint Studer. As a hospital CEO, he would do “rounding” (which was basically a Gemba visit). He made a point to stop and ask employees what he could do to help, followed by saying, “It’s OK, I have the time…” It’s better to have real interaction with a small number of employees rather than just blowing through and have a superficial encounter with everyone.

Extended Gemba

The thing that’s impressive about the Jeff Bezos story is the extended time he spent working at the Gemba — a distribution center. The NY Times blogger wrote:

I’m struck by reports that Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.com, spent last week working in one of the company´s warehouses in Lexington, Ken., according to The Lexington Herald-Leader:

Local Amazon employees say Bezos is working in the warehouse with the company’s hourly employees to see what they do and hear their comments about their work.

The Lexington paper wrote:

We asked to speak to The Man, but Amazon.com declined.

“Thanks so much for your interest in speaking with our CEO Jeff Bezos,” said spokeswoman Patty Smith. “Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to arrange any interviews or photos this week while he is in Lexington.

“He is there to work,” Smith said, “and, unfortunately, we are just not scheduling any interviews while he is in town.”

Local Amazon employees say Bezos is working in the warehouse with the company’s hourly employees to see what they do and hear their comments about their work.

Most CEOs would benefit from spending a few days on the shop floor. Life has changed there since they were young and on the way up – thanks to innovators, such as Amazon.com.

What a great point. I’m sure many Wall Street analysts (what do they know?) would criticize Bezos for wasting a week. Shouldn’t he be strategizing and thinking about the big picture? Shouldn’t he be making presentations to analysts?

Maybe one week a year of Extended Gemba time is just what we need to help fix the economy. Bill Gates famously got away from it for a week each year to read (he called it “Think Week.”) If executives can go away on vacation for a week, they can certainly take a week to visit the Gemba and hear the ideas that their employees have.

More about Bezos:

Mr. Bezos has also been curious about the seemingly routine process of picking merchandise off a shelf, putting it in boxes and mailing it off to customers. Among Amazon’s hidden assets are the processes and software it has developed for its distribution. Mr. Bezos, moreover, has become a proponent of kaizen, which means “continuous improvement” in Japanese.

He’s at the Gemba, looking at the real work and the real “value stream” of product fulfillment. How many hospital CEO’s (or Pharmacy Directors) spend even a day watching how medication orders are fulfilled from the pharmacy? They’d learn a lot. They’d see a LOT of waste. And maybe they’d engage with people about how to make things better — Kaizen.

You need ideas from the workers and a bit of servant leadership to sometimes make things work. The point of Bezos being at the Gemba isn’t that HE has to come up with all of the answers himself. That’s not why he’s there. He can encourage people to fix things and celebrate and honor them when they do. He can help set a “kaizen culture” in place if he handles things properly. But, if there are systems that the employees themselves can’t fix, then Bezos can make sure the right level of leadership is making things happen.

A lot of leaders could learn from Jeff Bezos.

p.s. Bezos showed up, of course, unannounced.

He arrived unannounced in Lexington to work this week at the Amazon.com “fulfillment center” that’s distribution center to most of us on Mercer Road.


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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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