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.
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.
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