• Gemba walk: The best solution is common sense

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    WHY do managers discuss issues through endless meetings, spending countless hours in an air-conditioned, comfortable, lavish executive suite, without taking a feel of the real situation at the “gemba” (a Japanese term for the shop floor or service area)? Why don’t they simply cut those meetings to one hour or even less and start spending the rest of their time at the gemba where it matters the most?

    I tested this proposition once again when I inspected a new hotel in Makati where we planned to organize a public management seminar. As soon as I entered the driveway, I took a slow left turn but was immediately prevented by the guard from proceeding to it. And mind you, he rushed from the front gate while leaving his post to alert us that it was a wrong turn. But why can’t they simply put up a sign?

    As soon as I reached the basement parking full of confusing, non-standard tarpaulin directional signs, I immediately walked back to the driveway to observe the situation. And true to my expectations, in less than ten minutes, there were three cars that also went the same wrong way, with the same security guard running toward them to alert them. If I stayed a little longer, I could have observed the same situation, over and over again.

    Going to the gemba (also spelled as “genba”) is always a good opportunity for managers to assess the real situation. It’s also called MBWA or Management by Wandering Around by Western managers who would do an informal, unstructured, random visit to the work area to understand what’s going on in real time.

    By the way, MBWA is credited to William Hewlett and David Packard, founders of the multinational Hewlett-Packard, who were known for their proactive communication style with employees.

    A gemba walk if done on a regular basis can do wonders. It’s easy to do and there’s no reason for managers not to do it. This way, you can directly observe a potential problem that could lead to a vehicular collision, if not the frayed nerves of hotel guests who are rushing in for an appointment. This is not to mention the stressful condition of the gate guard who must necessarily run back and forth to his outpost.

    But why can’t managers do the gemba walk or the MBWA? I think the issue boils down to some managers who think they hold the authority to control the situation through their subordinates. They would often chorus: “I don’t have to go to the gemba as much as I trust my workers to do it for me. After all, that’s what management is all about—by working through others.”

    This narrow view suggests that they don’t know much about the value of approachability, employee trust, operational knowledge, line supervision style and morale, among other things. For one, there are many creative ideas that could come out of casual exchanges than those found in formal meetings. Besides, in a gemba walk, it’s easy to disengage yourself from a worker or a group of workers as you would want to cover as many grounds as possible. And you don’t want the workers to be disturbed in their routines.

    To illustrate this point, consider a case when you as a manager invite a worker or a group of workers to your executive suite. To many people, your room full of leather chairs, narra wood table and sophisticated gadgets may unnerve a lot who are not used to enjoy them. Further, your room is not a neutral venue and therefore it could intimidate the workers.

    What’s the conclusion here? First, the gemba is everything. It’s the place where well-meaning people add value to their work. It’s the real place where problems could occur and where solutions can be found. Doing the gemba walk is a healthy physical exercise to allow you to take brief respite from sitting for countless hours while punching the keyboard of your office computer.

    Second, if you take your team on a gemba walk, you’re also taking the opportunity to coach people to identify all possible situations under DOWNTIME—a memory peg for Defects, Overproduction, Waiting, Non-use or Improper use of Resources, Transportation, Inventory, Motion and Extra-processing. Besides, walking with people in the dark is better than walking alone under the light.

    Still, given how many managers are comfortably stuck at their desks while doing remote management of the gemba, you should start convincing yourself that walking is magical. Even Plato and Aristotle were found to have discovered their bright ideas while walking. It’s easy to understand this as walking pumps the heart at its best.

    Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random thoughts.


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    1. Dear Sir/Madam,

      Gomen nasai. I don’t profess as an expert in Japanese management despite the fact that I lived and studied in Japan for one year (1993-1994) under a management fellowship program sponsored by then Nippon International Cooperation Center, now under the Japan Business Federation. Further, I pursued a post graduate degree in Japanese studies at DLSU-Manila, plus the fact that I worked extensively with Japanese experts including the kaizen guru Masaaki Imai. Maybe you got confused. I’m not saying that the Japanese don’t hold meetings. What I’m saying is that they hold meetings but not much in airconditioned rooms but at the shop floor or the gemba where problems and solutions can be found. Thanks for your feedback, anyway.

    2. I am sorry but…you have not interacted directly with Japanese management. Yet I did and they are the best proponent of holding meetings. And they bring the platoon rather than the captains..and they will bow their heads to the most senior in position..and in the meeting the subordinates have to ask permission before talking else they will be scolded right there. Maybe the walk to the shop floor will help in the improvement but to decide to implement your observation I’d rather say it is much better that few heads are to be consulted. Say I was the operations audit manager for a Japanese industrial company and right you are I have initiated changes for improvements some were implemented and some were not, and further you are right it took a lot of meetings….