Gemba is "the actual place", where the work happens. A gemba walk can not only save costs, but improve learning and relationships. Here’s how it works…
If you’ve heard of “kaizen” – continual, iterative improvement through small changes – you’ll easily see how gemba fits in.
Pronounced gem-ba, gemba is more formally defined as “genchi genbutsu”. If you think that sounds Japanese, you’re right! It roughly means, “Go see for yourself to understand.”
In business, gemba is where value is created. For a retail shop, it’s at the shopping aisles and tills; for an actor, it’s on stage; for a farmer, it’s where stuff grows. It’s listening to a call centre agent helping a customer. If you think this is just like the 1970s fad of management by walking around (MBWA), then you’re right again. Sort of.
The overlap between gemba and MBWA is that both eliminate the problems of being a “paper” manager, the risk of managing your project or business through reports and second-hand information. There’s no better way to get in touch with reality than a gemba walk.
Gemba walks with my clients help me quickly see how their business really works. (And sometimes how it doesn’t work, or else why would a management consultant visit, right?) I can take in the actual production line, the smells and sounds, and actually feel the intangible culture. So much more than what financial statements and customer research could ever reveal.
But gemba builds on MBWA by applying some fundamental principles. For example, the main approach of gemba is to observe and learn – it’s not a debate or a witch-hunt. The focus is not the people, but the process. Hence, key values are respect, humility, truthfulness, and tenacity to question until we understand.
It helps to assume the person doing the work has the best knowledge and insights to solve problems. This might not hold true for very small businesses, where the owner-manager is likely to also be the technical expert.
Either way, gemba walks help push down decision-making and support agile process improvement in your business. Why not let your workers write the procedure manual? Resistance to change is minimised. Small changes emphasize common sense and low-cost instead of using big-change, method-oriented consultants.
The economic benefits are obvious: a lean, motivated and self-reliant team will surely perform better and create more owner wealth than a business that’s highly dependent on you.
But don’t do gemba just for the money! Even if there’s no financial pay-off, which is unlikely, gemba offers one of the best ways to strengthen collaborative relationships with your team. Observing and enquiring, as opposed to directing and giving orders, makes for a far more harmonious workplace, doesn’t it?
As much as gemba is good for lean production, kaizen, and efficient processes, it’s a key factor in engaging with people. Through gemba, we strengthen our human connections and, ultimately, we do work that makes a difference.
Because who wants to run a business just for the money?