In Japanese, gemba translates literally to “the real place.” Like many other Lean terms, the literal definition is less interesting than the idiomatic translations such as “the place where value is created” or “the place where work happens.” The range of gembas at King County is astounding, ranging from clinic exam rooms to courtrooms, sidewalks to runways, and high-tech data centers to warehouses full of records.
As Lean thinkers, we care about gemba because it’s where we go to see and learn. It’s the place where both frontline staff and leadership can best understand the current situation and improvement opportunities. Instead of PowerPoints or flowcharts in conference rooms, we observe the actual people doing the actual work in the actual workplace. By seeing with our own eyes, we reduce the potential for misinterpretation and enable multiple people to gain a common understanding.
Foing to the gemba involves structure and specific intent. We go to the gemba to see the work, which requires observation and planning ahead. We go to the gemba to learn, which requires a sense of curiosity and intentional questions. Finally, we go to the gemba to show respect by removing barriers, engaging staff in improvement work, and fostering communication throughout the organization.
There are entire books written about the best techniques for going to the gemba and although some of those books are great, we suggest that you just start doing it and learning as you go. Next time you have a question about how something is done or what the results are, go to the gemba to find your answer. Next time you think there’s a problem, go to the gemba to learn more about the cause. And instead of your next status report PowerPoint, take people to go see the gemba.
Feel free to invite us (the Continuous Improvement Team) on your next gemba walk.