Gemba 101

Gemba (sometimes referred to as genba) has become one of the most commonly used words in the lean vocabulary, right up there with Kaizen and 5S. The gemba 101adoption of Gemba principles into your lean culture has the potential to add numerous benefits to your continuous improvement. It’s recent rise in lean fame has come with some confusion and misinterpretation as well. As with any lean principle, it is important to fully understand the term and procedures that go along with it. That way when someone says “I’m going to the gemba,” everyone knows exactly what they mean.

What is Gemba?

The term gemba means “the real place.” It’s purpose is to get you to the exact location where action is taking place. This could be your factory floor or your kids soccer game, the point is you are at the scene of the action and can have a first hand account of the action taking place. It can also be referred to as the place where value is created. However, it takes a lot more than a good set of eyes to incorporate gemba into your lean strategies.

The gemba approach should always include the following:

  • The observer must have a rooted curiosity in the action to understand what is really going on. If you just assume or develop opinions based off what you’ve heard then the value is lost from the gemba. You must have a strong desire to know what is going on.
  •  Have a direct observation of how the work is performed. To understand the gemba, you have to be in the gemba. The goal of gemba is to fully understand the gemba behaviors and the current reality of the situation more clearly, from a direct observation.
  • Respect others and strengthen the culture. Gemba requires direct interaction with employees as they work. This can easily cause tension between upper management and employees if the employee feels uneasy about being observed if done incorrectly. However, to get the full value of gemba one must engage themselves with the employee directly while they work, not from a distance. Keeping an equal respect for everyone should be commonsense, especially in the gemba.

Going to the Gemba

Once you understand the gemba approach then you can move on to the actual process. The following steps will help you along your gemba path to success and make going to the gemba one of the most powerful lean tools in your tool box.

1. Know your purpose: If you don’t know why you’re there, then there’s no point in being there. Wondering around without a purpose is counter-productive and provides no benefit to your organization. It should also be noted and clear that gemba is NOT Management by Walking Around (MBWA). The 1980’s concept lacks the principles and purpose that gemba offers.

  • Before you go to the gemba ask yourself these questions: Why am I going to observe? What am I trying to learn? When you have the answers, you’re ready for the gemba.

2. Know your gemba: Each gemba is unique in its own way and should not be categorized into a single unit. Remember, a gemba is the exact location of an activity as it is performed that you wish to study. Chances are you have several different points of action in your organization and they should be approached as such.

3. Observe the framework: Good observation skills are hard to come by, but essential to the gemba. Observers often overlook a step or a part of the process that will hinder the improvement process later as they review their notes. It is important to take everything in all the components that make up the gemba from the equipment, to the people, to the material. A good observer is able to analyze everything as individual components, but also understand how they work together as part of the flow of operations.

4. Validate: Never assume that what you see is the actual representation of reality. There are things that you can’t see, like the thought process of the worker as he overcomes a specific challenge in the process. To get the full value of your observation you have to validate your conclusions with the person you observed. This opens up the dialogue and is a way to ensure both parties have a good grip on the current reality.

As the lean movement continues to grow so will the ways we try to innovate and improve the process. The important thing is to not get ahead of yourself. It might all be about continuous improvement and eliminating waste, but if you haven’t mastered one step before going to the next, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Gemba embraces the skills of your entire organization. It’s a powerful culture building component of lean that can have a tremendous impact on your improvement process –when done correctly.

Additional Resources