Why Going To The Gemba Isn’t Enough (And How Going To The Gemba Is More Like Meditating)


What is the “gemba” and how do you “go to the gemba” effectively? Today we’re answering your questions!

In this episode we explain:

  • What the gemba is and why going to it isn’t enough.
  • The goal for every leader when it comes to the gemba.
  • Why going to the gemba is a lot like meditation.
  • Some advantages of when leader and worker are one and the same person in the workplace.
  • Some of the disadvantages of when you’re busy doing the work.

What is the “gemba” and “going to the gemba?”

Gemba means the “actual place” in Japanese, and there is no good English equivalent. If a news reporter were reporting at a crime scene in Japan, you might hear them say, “Reporting from gemba.” It’s the place where the real events take place.

You have a gemba! Do you know what it is?

It is the actual people, material, problems, machines, etc. that you are responsible to work with.

But don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can understand or manage the workplace from afar! Your computer screen might have lots of data, even live video footage, but there is no substitute for being fully present in space and time in your gemba.

Lean literature and practitioners say a lot about “going to the gemba,” but just paying the gemba a visit is not enough!

Visiting the gemba is no better than visiting church on Sunday… it’s quite easy to go through the motions, check the box, and still be a jerk on Monday!

So just standing on the production floor is not a guarantee that you’re “going to the gemba” effectively.

(At the same time, there’s no way to shortcut the requirement to invest time being present in your gemba, which we will discuss further below!)

The leader’s goal: to know the truth of how things are!

Your goal for the gemba is to be fully in touch with the truth in the actual place where work is performed. You’ve got to be fully integrated and connected to how things truly are.

There will always be some amount of gap between what you think you know about the gemba and the truth, but the problem for many leaders is that the gap is large. You can close that gap and make is smaller by learning to go to the gemba effectively.

Having a right understanding of the work is invaluable. Without it, you cannot make good or effective decisions.

Why going to the gemba is like meditating

We’ve already established that you cannot just pay visits to your production floor (or wherever your work is performed). That’s not enough.

To deeply understand how things actually are, you are going to have to learn to think deeply and carefully (and repeatedly) just like the practice of meditating on something.

You’ve got to learn to think with your whole body.

Don’t make the mistake of using your brain to judge or solve a problem from afar. The brain is lazy, prone to assumption, and quick to make bad decisions.

Instead, learn to think with your hands and touch the machines, parts, and problems for yourself. Learn to think with your feet and go see your customers, suppliers, and team members. Learn to think with your ears and listen to people, to the sounds of the workplace around you, and ask insightful questions.

You cannot visit the gemba once and deeply know it no more than going on a date only one time with someone.

And the moment you think you know the gemba it has already changed (and you’re again out of touch)! So learn to continuously learn and be present.

The advantages of working in the gemba

People who actually work in the gemba have a first-hand understanding of how things actually are. If you are also a leader of some kind, you can then problem-solve and improve the work effectively.

You’re not going off of someone else’s complaint, opinion, or hearsay. You are experiencing the real stuff for yourself.

Any leader needs to become devoted to being present in their gemba. You will accomplish more being present than from trying to made decisions and lead from afar. (Your people might respect and follow you more too!)

The disadvantages of working in the gemba

Although doing the work yourself is a fantastic way to understand the workplace, it has its disadvantages.

You can be so busy producing that you do not have the brain capacity and time to think about the work you are doing.

You often cannot step back and observe the work either, since your team is depending on you to contribute to getting the work done.

There are some strategies to help overcome these disadvantages but not completely.

This is why the role of team leaders is invaluable.

Although it may seem like a waste of time to have leaders routinely observing the work (vs. performing the work), it is how the organization then makes effective decisions and kaizen.

Learn How to Assess Your Gemba at the Lean Smarts Academy

You can stand in your gemba, but are you seeing everything there is to see? Learn how to see by educating yourself and your team using our resources in the Lean Smarts Academy.