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.
In your Lean travels, you will likely hear two derivative terms from the word gemba.
Go to gemba: The term means to go and see what is really happening rather than talk about it, read about it, or try to recall it from memory. Nothing short of actually doing the work gives one quite the same perspective on a process as seeing it firsthand. There is a feel to the flow of work that you can’t otherwise experience. This term is most commonly used to get out of a rat hole when problem solving turns to debating.
Gemba walk: A gemba walk is a form of management in which leaders walk around the work area to gain firsthand insight into how processes are done. (See our entry on the conduct of a gemba walk for more details on this leadership technique.)
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 …
real place to observe the
real thing to get the
real facts and data.
Leadership Presence in Gemba is Critical
‘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…
Be careful not to make decisions in a conference room. You lack the insight that you get from seeing an operation firsthand in gemba.
Leaders should be careful not to give the impression that their increased presence on the shop floor is to monitor people more. The way to do this is to make sure that processes improve as a direct result of having leaders visiting gemba more often.
Be careful when introducing Japanese terms to team members. If Lean concepts are not being well received, foreign words can sometimes make matters worse. It highlights the fact that something new and different is coming down the pike. Consider…
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…
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…
Gemba loosely translates to the “real place”. It is one of the “three reals”. To get answers you need to go to the real place to see the real thing and get the real facts and data.
Good managers spend a lot of their time where the processes they manage are being done. This the only way they will get the intuitive familiarity they need to immediately recognize problems.
Spending time on the shop floor should not be to focus on catching people doing things wrong. The intent is to identify problems with processes so they can be improved.