Developing Awareness on the Gemba — Part 1

Practical advice on ways to be present and to coach in the moment at the gemba.

Developing Awareness on the Gemba — Part 1

This piece was written just as the coronavirus was spreading, and before all measures of social distancing took effect. It assumes that the physical boundaries now in place will eventually recede; and it applies equally to all types of virtual “gemba” walks. This is particularly true in the context of firms who sell digital products and services, like fintech, healthtech, and e-commerce, as a large part of their gemba is virtual. Since the start of lockdown three weeks ago, I’ve been working with several leaders and their teams on finding ways to apply the principles described in this article, to organize work visually and create safe (virtual) spaces for people to continue and express themselves, and break isolation. I am curious to hear about your similar experiments. Looking forward to reading your comments. Keep safe and healthy.–Sandrine

“Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet. Don’t think with your head, think with your hands.” You may have already heard or read this quote by Taïchi Ohno, one of the forefathers of lean thinking. He insisted that a manager should lead from the ground up by going to the “gemba” (where value is created) to see the real situation, not rely on second-hand information such as management reports.

But once on the gemba, what do we do? What do we look for? And how do we know that our visits are having a positive impact, on people and for the company? The idea of visiting a team while they’re working can be quite unnerving and with good reason. No one wants a manager, let alone the big boss herself, breathing down their neck while they’re trying to get on with their day. There is a lot of literature about what to do and how to behave during a visit to the shop floor. But there is not much talk about the real intention of a gemba walk. As is the case with any new tool or practice, when the intention is not clear the effects can be disappointing and sometimes even damaging.

I know a CEO who had read all the books and was eager to try out lean practices with her teams, including gemba walks. But she had the wrong intention in mind: she understood that she needed to notice where people were running into trouble but reacted by telling them what they were doing wrong and sometimes yelling at them for not following processes. As a result, her teams felt controlled and squeezed, and tensions rose. Another CEO I know went to the gemba with the intention of being the “nice boss”: shaking hands, laughing with the team, and “tap dancing” around problems to avoid difficult discussions. In the end, the team started finding excuses to cancel the next gemba visit, claiming urgent client requests or other important work. Gemba walks are never easy. Not for anyone.

When I’m on the gemba, I need to have all my senses fully switched on. I know I need to really look, feel, hear, smell and, even taste (although I haven’t needed to do the last one yet). I also need to have both sides of my brain plugged in: the left side for empathy and the right side for thinking. Empathy, because I want to show that I feel people’s pain (and I really do). Thinking, because I cannot let emotions take over: I’m here to help make sense of a situation, so I have to remain logical and factual. With regular practice, gemba visits get somewhat easier, although the skill is never really mastered because each situation is different. After years of practice, I am able to recognize typical problems in a variety of unclear situations. This experience helps me know where and how to look, so I can point in the right direction without getting too influenced by all the noise. Together with the CEO and managers, we can quickly find interesting and specific problems to discuss with people. This is important because once people are able to see a real problem, they immediately become much more engaged in the discussion. This is what we call in our book The Lean Sensei developing “awareness,” and it is the first intention of a gemba walk.

Awareness is about “opening minds to looking elsewhere, looking at the problem differently, challenging what seems obvious but is in fact a deployment of the established goals and plans, and making leaders aware that markets are changing and that the current way of doing things is no longer the best fit.” Keeping my “awareness radar” active while I’m on the gemba is my first challenge. Lean is extremely helpful for this because it provides me with 1) a compass for finding meaningful problems and 2) the discipline to see a problem for what it really is and not just for what I want it to be. Every new problem leads to an eye-opening discovery about the business. And sometimes, one will open the door to a golden opportunity for growth.

I remember one such moment at a startup that was failing to reach its business targets, notably due to a low rate of lead conversion. In order to increase the visibility of that process, the CEO and his marketing manager mandated the development team to build a new digital tool to track the leads generated by the various partners. They wanted to understand why it had not yet been released, so we went together to visit the development team. It turned out that a big reason for the delay was that the partners were not interested in using the tool–which gave them more work to do and didn’t offer much value in return. One person, in particular, resisted sharing information because she felt like it was being used to micro-manage her. The conversation started focusing on her personality: bad communicator, secretive, emotional, etc.

To me, it looked as if the CEO and his manager wanted the new tool to provide management with oversight of sales activities, and that the partners saw it the same way. This made alarm bells go off in the back of my head. Were they planning a system for controlling the partners or for collaborating with them? Did they just want to track KPIs or actually work with their partners to remove obstacles to lead conversion? My goal became to make them see that they were talking about the wrong problem. The fact of unconverted leads was not just related to a lack of visibility of the sales process, this was just the tip of the iceberg. Launching a new digital tool was not going to improve matters. If anything, forcing the partners to use a tool they didn’t want would create even more problems.

So I asked the CEO: “When was the last time you visited that partner and studied a few prospects in detail with them? Do you have examples of real difficulties they run into each day?” It quickly became clear that he lacked understanding of the issues the partners and the sales team were facing. As we continued the discussion, he realized that even with detailed numbers from the new tool, he would not know how to help the partners or improve lead conversion.

Once we’ve become aware of such a situation, what should we do next?

This story was originally published by Sandrine on