What do we really look for at the gemba?


Is Lean about process improvement? Or customer satisfaction improvement? Or is it about creating a learning system? Or cost reduction in the end?

What do we really look for at the gemba.  Usual entry points into lean thinking are:

  1. Improve the layout of a production cell to boost productivity
  2. Map the value stream to improve process efficiency
  3. Fix top-of-the-pareto customer complaints (more rarely)
  4. SMED to reduce batches and accelerate flows (very rarely these days)
  5. Stand-up meetings and leader standard work to… whatever…

Each of these entry points are valid in themselves, but only as entry points. For most lean practitioners, the next step tends to be “systematic.” Old lean hands will then move on to establish a pull system, automotive guys will focus on standardized work and newbies will have a program to deploy Value Stream Mapping across every process and have Rapid Improvement Events everywhere in the hope that something magical will happen. Or we could also set up a model cell. or go back to basics and start with 5S. or all of the above.

But what are we really after?

Lean is indeed about process improvement in the end, but not organizational process, technical process. The understanding we seek is: what are the key technical processes that, if we improved them radically, would also improve radically our value to customers?

In the fog of war, with the competitive pressure of the business and in the full messiness of day to day operations, this is not only a very hard question of answer, but also very easy question to loose track off and refocus on just doing stuff and implement a system rather than improve. Ask yourself:

  • Am I learning to better solve key problems today?
  • Am I setting up a system to better manage problems and push them on tomorrow?

The system is only a scaffolding to discover which are the key process points we need to crack in order to make a visible difference to customers and profitability:


Learning doesn’t stem naturally from “experimenting.” Real learning is the result of repetitive experiments over time until the people who do the work themselves figure out how to shape new solutions to intractable problems.

The lean leaders’s work is to make good guesses of the few learning topics where energy has to go to look for radically better way of doing things from repetitive small-step improvement and experiments. In lean terms, the response to the challenge is in repeated kaizen.

But we’ve got little chance of finding anything if we don’t go looking for it first. What do we look for at the gemba? How to discover, from our exploration with the lean tools, the key technical points with the promise to yield radical customer satisfaction improvement if we find how by working hands on with the people doing the work themselves by trying again and again and always asking ourselves: what next?

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