Gemba: The Japanese Word Defining Management

Western management styles tend to digest knowledge and solve problems in the boardroom. In Japan, managers tend to do things a little differently. In Japan, managers go to the gemba.

Not to be confused with the sports media and marketing company owned by Australian football player James Hird. Gemba, is a Japanese word that translates to ‘the real place’.

As this article explains, the concept of gemba, allows management to get out into the workplace and observe the workers in action. By performing a ‘gemba walk’ management strengthen the channels of communication between themselves and employees, and can witness the day to day operations first hand.

The idea was popularized by Taiichi Ono, Japanese businessman and father of the Toyota Production System. Ono believed regularly visiting the factory floor would help managers to find innovative ways to improve the company’s products and processes.

Three simple instructions; Go see, ask why, and give respect, were the mantra for Toyota managers. This saying was coined by former chairman, Fuji Cho, and by adopting this strategy they built one of the most successful companies in the automotive industry, with consistently high customer satisfaction ratings to this day.

Since then, all manner of successful companies from small local businesses, to multimillion dollar corporations like Dr. Pepper, have adopted gemba as a core concept of their management style.

Adopting the idea of gemba is all about shifting your management style from a mindset, to action, and proponents of lean management are vocal advocates for the benefits that this more hands-on approach can bring. A gemba walk around the office, factory floor or shopfront provides the opportunity to connect directly with customers and employees, rather than reading everything in a report, as well as monitor for any waste in areas like processing, production, defects and non-utilized talent. By breaking down the barriers between management and the people they manage, it gives employees more confidence to speak out about problems or issues they see, and suggest potential solutions. It also has the bonus of increasing your visibility amongst the workforce, which can provide a boost to both morale and discipline.

When you do finally get out there, it’s important to remember that the gemba walk is a time to learn about how the work is done, so try to avoid latching on to minor problems and proposing on the fly solutions which might impede staff’s ability to do their job. Instead, reflect on your observations and then allocate some time to talk with the team about them.

Most experts advice setting aside a small amount of time each week to actually get out and interact at the place where value is created for your customers. No matter the size of your business, a management principle that gets you engaged with your workforce and your target market, is going to be to your benefit. There is no better way to increase that value than by making sure everyone is involved in improving.

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