Gemba in the Digital Age

Gemba in the Digital Age


What is Gemba?

Gemba is all about getting out to the place where the work is actually done, to see it for yourself, and to understand the work from the perspective of the person doing it. It’s not a new idea, except in comparison to the Model T. More than that, it became popular before almost every machine had sensors to report results and issues independently. Now with apps and the most intuitive software we’ve ever had, information is usually a click away. In this distraction-full, tech-focused era of high-speed work and constant communication, are Gemba Walks really necessary or even possible? Don’t we have enough information about the work that is being done without adding another thing to our plates?

What is a Gemba Walk?

First, let’s agree on what a Gemba walk is: It’s when someone who doesn’t normally work in a particular area goes there to learn about the work that is done there, whether it’s on the production floor or in the office. The goal of the conversation is to share understanding, adding value for people outside of that specific area. It’s built on mutual respect and honest curiosity. It’s not a surprise, random visit to someone’s work station. Everyone involved knows when it’s going to happen and why. They all have time to prepare and do their best.

How Gemba works in the digital age

Second, let’s answer these questions. There is plenty of information out there and almost as many ways to get it. However, we all know information doesn’t equate to knowledge, insight or wisdom. All the spreadsheets, charts, and tables in the world won’t tell you what’s actually happening in a workcell.

There’s also one aspect that will never quite fit into a pie chart or A3 – the human experience. What does it feel like to move 30% more parts today than yesterday? What’s the most frustrating part of the process? What is it like to open the finished product when it arrives at your door or loading bay?

Surveys are one way to get information from the people doing the work in a particular area and they can be effective if designed well. Many surveys leave a little to be desired and often the people who are busy running a machine with production goals would rather stay on task than spend time filling out a survey, especially if they don’t think anyone will look at the results.

Every business out there could benefit from painting a clearer picture about how things work behind the scenes. It all gets translated into something the customer sees and change is constant. That means going to the actual place (a.k.a. the Gemba). 

If the workcell is producing information that you have access to from your desk, review that first. One of the most frustrating things is being asked a question that’s already being answered somewhere else. It’s also not very lean. Understanding the existing information first will also help you ask better questions and more easily draw connections between this workcell and other parts of the business. That’s part of the beauty of this digital age we’re all living in. Take advantage of it!

When observing a digital process, be mindful of the technology that will be used to facilitate the Gemba Walk and what it will take for everyone involved to participate. Part of being lean is choosing a format that makes sense for the work that will be done. In some cases, a remote Gemba Walk may not be possible. For example, if the people involved are in different locations and the technology isn’t available at both sites, another solution may be needed to achieve the point of the Gemba Walk. Consider the possibility of an in-person meeting or finding someone  at the site who would be able to facilitate, other than the person or people being observed.

Even in the case of a digital process, the importance of the conversation remains. A Gemba Walk isn’t a simple trade of information. It’s a purposeful exchange between someone who wants to learn and someone or a group of people who are ready to teach. When it’s done well, it further builds the relationship between the people involved and improves the knowledge within the organization.

How Gemba Walks help your organization

Regular Gemba Walks will move any organization toward smoother processes and relationships. They will improve communication, promote empathy between departments, and break down those silos we all hear so much about. Just imagine what it would be like if someone who doesn’t seem to know what you do on a daily basis would ask to talk with you about it and then really listen with a genuinely curious mind. How might that change how they view your work?

Next time you see a report that inspires you to ask some questions, consider going out to the people who know the answers. Gather your thoughts and questions ahead of time, give the people you need some notice, and get ready for a conversation that just might change the way you view that report and the work that goes into it.

If you’d like to learn about how one Designer is using Gemba Walks in healthcare, and set aside 12 minutes to watch this TED talk.

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