If You’re Going to Visit the Gemba, Your Mindsets and Behaviors Matter… A Lot

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Hi. I'm Mark. If you read this blog, you might already know me. I'm going to tell a story today that's illustrated with Apple “Memojis.”

That kinda looks like me. I'm not quite that grey. Yet.

In the Lean community, you hear a lot of people talk about the need to “go to the gemba.”

What's that word? Many of you probably know it. And use it. And use it well.

Gemba is a Japanese word that is usually translated to mean “the actual place” or “the place where the work is done.” The gemba (sometimes spelled ‘genba') is the manufacturing shop floor. It's the hospital operating room. It's the coffee shop where drinks are being made and sold.

Going to the gemba is important because gemba problems are rarely solved in conference rooms or the executive suite.

Going to the gemba doesn't mean just a scripted “gemba walk.” The problem with some “gemba walks” is that leaders never take the time to stop and observe, or to stop and really have a two-way conversation with employees (ideally, they should be listening more than they're talking).

The behaviors of a leader in the gemba matter greatly. Not all gemba visits are created equally. Some gemba visits could be quite harmful.

A True Story

I'm going to share a story that I've had tucked away in my brain since my manufacturing days. It's stayed with me pretty vividly and, I think, enough time has passed where it's OK to share.

At this company, I worked in a Lean facilitator / internal consultant role. The director I reported to was as good as they get — a former Danaher person who really understood not just Lean methods, but Lean mindsets and behaviors.

Unfortunately, the vice president of Lean Six Sigma was NOT a manufacturing guy. He had risen up the management ranks through finance. This VP role was clearly a punch-the-ticket “developmental assignment” for him to be able to rise even further.

When I saw how this VP operated, him rising through the ranks would have been the LAST thing I'd want to see. This guy was arrogant. He was always in his office. He liked to yell and blame. He would have fit right in at General Motors, circa 1995 where I worked.

I was working on a project in one of the production areas and things were going well. My director wanted us to bring the VP out to the gemba to see the work, the posted metrics that showed improvement, etc. I wasn't thrilled about it, but I guess I didn't have a choice. I also didn't care enough to try to push back. I think my director was trying to get me some recognition and appreciation. He meant well.

The Scheduled Gemba Visit

The day of the scheduled gemba visit the VP was a day (one of many) when one of the key pieces of production equipment (“a TIG welder,” if I remember correctly) was down. And it was down HARD. This was a piece of really old machinery that was “held together with duct tape a chewing gum,” as people say in these situations. The downtime was a problem and the production engineer was doing his best to work on that over time.

The poor reliability of that machine was one of the drivers for my project that was focused on properly setting inventory levels for our internal kanban system (this production area made subassemblies that flowed to a final assembly area).

When we talk about “lowering the water to expose the rocks,” the rocks (the downtime) were already super visible. In the short-term, we thought it made sense to “raise the water” a bit until the equipment could be fixed or replaced (a longer-term countermeasure that would allow us to lower the water). ‘

Customer deliveries were being missed, so this wasn't a time to cling to Lean dogma about inventory being bad. We needed to buffer against this problem until it could be fixed.

Our Lean Six Sigma group's cubicles and offices were up in a mezzanine level (not ideal, as it was a bit far from the gemba). You run the risk of having your head up in the clouds if you were there all the time.

I was concerned about bringing the VP down while production wasn't running. It would be more difficult to show him some of the changes we had made to improve flow in the area (the old habits of “batching” die hard).

My director and I had a chat with the VP as we were starting to walk down the metal stairs to the gemba.

We explained that the key bottleneck machine was down, as to set expectations.

The Ridiculous, Clueless Mindset

Then he unleashed this statement:

“MAYBE WE SHOULD SEND THE WORKERS HOME EARLY WITHOUT PAY, THEN THEY'LL HAVE AN INCENTIVE TO KEEP THINGS RUNNING.”

If those weren't his exact words, they're very close.

He was disrespectful. He was assuming. He was ignorant about production.

Notice I didn't say he was stupid. He wasn't stupid. Far from it. And sometimes that's the problem.

Cue more Memojis and my range of reactions in the moment.

I think I said something like:

“Well, that's not how it works. And it's not the front line team members' fault that they are forced to use old equipment that was poorly maintained for a long time.”

He was blaming (and suggesting that we punish) people for something that wasn't their fault. How motivating, right? No.

There wasn't a lot of back and forth with the VP.

I remember he didn't like being challenged or disagreed with, in general.

He wasn't interested in learning.

So, I figured that saying anything else wasn't going to be worth the effort or the risk.

My Strategy Changed

At this point, as we were walking, my goals shifted from trying to inform him about our work, and maybe to get a little credit for my facilitation role, my objectives became:

  • Get him out of the Gemba as soon as possible
  • Don't let him attempt to interact with anybody
  • Hope he doesn't say or do something dumb

We got to that production area. There wasn't a lot of chit chat or anything during the walk.

We stopped outside the production area (it was enclosed in a room). There was a large window that gave a view into the room.

The VP was fixated on a metrics board that was hanging outside the room. So we looked at that. He was interested in cost and financial numbers.

He didn't ask to go into the production area.

I certainly wasn't about to offer.

So we walked back to our mezzanine carpet land. Thankfully, the VP didn't talk to anybody and didn't do any damage. He probably checked a box for “Yeah, I went to gemba.”

Big deal.

Well, he thought he was a big deal… too big of a deal to be bothered with that piddling production stuff.

I was really happy to leave that VP in the rear-view mirror when I left the company. He's a CFO at a software company. Good for him. I hope he's staying away from the gemba (the software developers and engineers who are doing the work).

Mark Graban, signing off for now.

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