When Uwe asked me whether I would like to go to Gemba in order to help understand the client’s process we have been studying, I looked it up on Google. To my surprise, Gemba is not a secluded, unknown part of Singapore. Gemba (现场) is a Japanese word that means “the real place”. Japanese detectives use Gemba to point to the crime scene.
In our process excellence context, Gemba stands for the place where the “real value for customers is created”. I was wondering about the need for this. After all, we had received detailed information about both, flow and timing for all processes directly from project teams.
Meeting Room Data is not Enough
However, during my Gemba study I learned about the difference between “meeting room data” and observations. It is not that our data gathered in the meeting room were totally wrong. They certainly did describe the “normal” process. However, my observations were full of exceptions and surprises.
In addition to noting the exact duration of the different steps in the processes, I was able to gather more in-depth details that the process-mapping exercises did not reveal. These details became obvious during real-time observation and enriched through on-site explanation by staff. Such details did not make it on our list during mapping exercises.
Gemba Offers Invaluable Insights
Through the Gemba Walk, I was able to ask the why’s and how’s of the processes. And, the explanations from staff gave me a good understanding of reasons behind why processes ran in a certain manner and why certain processes did not follow SOP. For instance, exceptions were necessary to overcome system constraints or lack of communication between different departments. More often than not, non-functioning processes turned functioning by small changes to the benefit of the overall flow. Knowing these otherwise almost invisible changes and exceptions gave us powerful opportunities for process improvements and flow redesign. We would not have been able to recommend some vital improvements without our Gemba data.
Leaders Need to go to Gemba Frequently
Working on this project also sets me reflecting on the leadership role in today’s changing environment. I conclude that leaders need to spend more time at the real touch points impacting the customers and the employees, where the Moments of Truth are created. Only then will they truly understand the real situation so that they can take effective actions to improve performance. From time to time, leaders should manage by Gemba instead of relying completely on third party reports. Going to Gemba seems to be a way of Walking the Talk and contributes to building trust. And, being seen in Gemba only in crisis situations undermines its value and leaves a negative stain on it.
In conclusion, attending Gemba Walks has provided me great learning opportunities to really understand processes as a whole. Being able to observe the actual processes from the ground level, rather than only from a piece of paper, made a huge difference to our project outcome – to the benefit of our client.