Gemba Time

Gemba. In Japanese, Gemba means “real place”. Where the action happens. This is how a typical org chart looks like.

Where do think Gemba is in this org chart?

Notice anything? The higher up the chart you go, the more away from Gemba you are. The more away you are, the more out of touch with reality you become. Decisions will be made on a mirage of what Gemba is. In most companies, the CEO is always the last to know. That big engineering problem that you predicted was coming and your org is scrambling to solve, your VP is always the last to know. What your customer wants from the product, the PM is always the last to know. Users don’t care about the org structure of your company. In fact, if they are able to guess the org structure of your company it means you are in trouble.

“Can you figure out who reigns supreme at Apple when you open the box for your new iPhone? Yes. It’s you, the customer; not the head of software, manufacturing, retail, hardware, apps, or the Guy Who Signs the Checks. That is exactly as it should be.” — Eric Schmidt in “How Google Works”.

What’s the solution to this?

Taiichi Ohno, an executive at Toyota developed the Gemba walk. Gemba Walk was designed to allow leaders to identify existing safety hazards, observe machinery and equipment conditions, ask about the practiced standards, gain knowledge about the work status and build relationships with employees in Toyota. The objective of Gemba Walk is to understand the value stream and its problems rather than review results or make superficial comments. The executives at HP practiced a form of this called Management by Walking around where unstructured, random visits to workplaces would help them understand and help address concerns.

How do we put Gemba walk into practice?

What is a CXO’s/VP’s/Manager’s most powerful tool to shape his/her organisation? The calendar. (If your calendar is not open and visible, congratulations, you are indulging in encouraging the slow death of transparency in your organisation. Make it open.) Start making Gemba time in your calendar. Don’t put it on your calendar, make it a practice. As the CEO, you might worry that your company might not hit the sales quota. What’s the next thing most CEOs do? They call their VP of sales, ask questions, get excuses! Poof. Problem solved. The Gemba CEO would go to the floor a few times, listen to the calls and get the magic insight that his/her reps are not able to position the product well and set traps for competition. If the VP of Sales had done Gemba time, he would have had this insight already. If PMs do Gemba time on support and sales calls, they don’t have to ask for an excel sheet with important feature requests when they do roadmaps.

In High Output Management, Andy Grove narrates an incident with a journalist — “A journalist puzzled by our management style once asked me, “Mr. Grove, isn’t your company’s emphasis on visible signs of egalitarianism such as informal dress, partitions instead of offices . . . just so much affectation?” My answer was that this is not affectation, but a matter of survival. In our business we have to mix knowledge-power people with position-power people daily, and together they make decisions that could affect us for years to come.”

Get out of your offices. Declutter your calendars. Go make time for Gemba. It’s a matter of survival.

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