Literally translated, “gemba” means ‘the real place’. (Note: You may also hear the term as genba—with an ‘N’.) To experienced practitioners of Lean, this means the place where work is actually being done or value is being created.
Those with more limited knowledge of Lean, especially in its traditional manufacturing application, commonly use gemba synonymously, although slightly incorrectly, with ‘shop floor.’ The shop floor is a gemba, but not all gembas are shop floors.
As Lean has migrated to the office, this restrictive use of the term gemba has been challenged. The ‘real place’ can be in an engineering cubicle, at a cash register in a retail store, or in front of a computer where orders are entered. While it is still not commonplace to hear the term gemba in the Lean office, the principle behind it, specifically gaining firsthand knowledge of a process, is just as strong as on the shop floor.
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The principle behind this Lean term is that in order to really understand a process, you have to go to the spot where the work is being done. The concept of gemba is part of a bigger philosophy known as the ‘3 Reals’.
You have to go to the …
‘Go to Gemba’ is a common refrain that Lean experts use when facilitating events. It is surprising to hear how often people will try to argue one another into believing that what they say is correct, when they are only 50 feet from seeing the answer firsthand.
Lean managers should be out in gemba regularly. They should spend a big chunk of their day out on the shop floor. In fact, there’s another Japanese term for this: genba kanri—which means shop floor management in English.
Managers cannot possibly get a feel for what is happening if they are not out in the work areas watching what is going on.
I even go so far as to recommend moving your office out to the shop floor. You can always use a conference room for phone calls and private meetings.
Being in the ‘real place’ will help you learn more about the processes in your area than any other method. When you see an operation day in and day out, you get familiar with it, and any hiccup you witness begs for attention. If you only pass through intermittently, those same problems won’t call out to you. And if they don’t call out, how will they ever get solved?
As managers embrace the concept of solving problems in gemba, you will undoubtedly feel more scrutinized. After all, in the past you were expected to just deal with problems. In an improvement focused organization, though, there are constantly people in your workspace watching and asking questions.
Have patience. While it can be unnerving to be so closely watched, remember that a good manager is really focusing on the process, not on you. If you help her see how things operate and work together, you’ll likely see many of the problems you face start to disappear.
In a nutshell, it is a good thing to be observed. If your boss is spending more time in gemba, she is likely also going to provide the resources to fix the problems she observes.
It is a leader’s responsibility to be present in the areas that he or she is managing. They have to know the nuances of an operation to be able to make good, well-informed decisions. That does not mean they need to know how to do every part of the operation themselves. It just means that they have to have enough familiarity with normal conditions so they can recognize when things seem out of whack. A good leader will get a feel for the rhythm, sounds, and flow of the work areas she is in charge of.
Leaders don’t gain that sort of feel with occasional visits. In fact, I go so far as to recommend that managers have a desk available to them to work in gemba. With modern technology it is a simple matter to forward phone calls and connect a computer wirelessly from anywhere. There is no excuse for a manager who does not have a regular presence at the real place where the process is done.
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