"Old wine in new bottles", Gemba Walks & the danger of fads (#34)

As a lean community we’re at it again...

...the lazy business of reducing a very useful habit into a stand-alone tool to package up and sell. I first came across a structured way of purposefully walking the shopfloor, with sharp eyes, 15 years ago whilst working with a Japanese automotive transplant. I’ve been coaching and teaching a version of Gemba Walks ever since.

Recently Gemba Walk articles and chatter have proliferated as we’ve collectively spotted a new horse to hitch our wagon of lean wares to, either as a means for differentiating ourselves or proving that we’re keeping up. Either way, we ought to know better, fad lean is about as useful as fad dieting. I was raised when BPR (Business Process Re-engineering) was the next big thing and clearly remember VSM sweeping our world as a panacea. I’ll sheepishly concede that I signed up to the VSM-cures-all school for a while.

Each of these trouble me, not because they are wrong, but because they reduce useful things to isolated tools and the world just doesn’t work this way. This way of thinking echoes a quote I scarcely remember from the 90’s but have mangled into the following:

“Asking me to concentrate on Gemba Walks in isolation is like asking me to watch one part of a television screen”.

It’s just too damn reductive. The value of Gemba Walks becomes clear if we view them as part of a system including (but not limited to):

> Hoshin, to gauge how well we’ve framed and sold the need to tackle the vital few. How are these simply visualised throughout the business? Can random people express them simply, not by rote, but the essence of them? Then we can all align our Kaizen effort.

> Standards, to see normal from abnormal via Full Standardised Work, data analysis, 5s & visual management through to specific agreed SQD escalation points. No one likes unpleasant surprises.

> Start-of-shift Team Briefs, to see how well they are prepared for, is the handover from shift to shift strong and change point biased? How well are these change points put across to the team? Is the understanding of them confirmed during the shift? Are countermeasures working as expected?

I think our clients should expect more of us in diagnosing the systemic weaknesses in the business and building Gemba Walks into a small suite of transformation activities. Perhaps three or four themes that will simultaneously increase the capability of people and solve problems sustainably. For the record, the picture heading this blog is one approach I’ve created recently with a client to increase management capability to Gemba Walk (in the context of their business weakness). There is no right or wrong, just useful or not useful to tackle the problems we face.

As ever, I’m conflicted about this. The real upside of this Gemba Walk fad is that it gets senior people out on the shopfloor to look. This is a basic pre-requisite to being able to see. Personally, the best series of Gemba Walks I undertook were in Guangdong, China a couple of years ago at the shoulder of my ex-Toyota sensei. We spent 3 days in constant motion in a large factory touching & coaching a large number of seemingly random people on the shopfloor. It took me a full day to work out the subtle themes running through the touches which, it turned out, beautifully aligned the shopfloor efforts to the Hoshin needs of the business.

My advice:

To change agents, be sure why you're promoting Gemba Walks and be able to link it to a purpose.

To clients, Gemba Walks are not a spectator sport, help in some way.

PS - gemba, genba, shopfloor, real place - it doesn't matter what you call it.


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