Gemba Schmemba! How Goofy can you get?

Gemba? I was surfing the business blogs for inspiration about my post on management fads and came across an article about “Gemba”. Where had I heard this before? I searched the memory bank and was harkened back to an experience with a former employer. I remembered being in one of our normal weekly 8 hour marathon forecast meetings with the plant manager. These were mind numbing events mandated by top management. They were oftentimes interrupted by phone calls from the top and pages from the shop floor, The plant manager was usually pretty stressed out during these meetings. He had a plant to run and we were a very “hands on” and “lean” (meaning most middle management had been cut) company.It was four or five O’clock and we were just about finishing up when the “consultant” that the board of directors had hired to help the president run the company (more on that in another post) stuck his head into my office. “I was out on the floor looking for you,” he announced as he grimaced at the plant manager. The plant manager shot back that he had been tied up all day in the forecast meeting. He also complained that all of the complex forecasting and reporting was keeping him from monitoring the operation. “Oh, I have a solution for that,” smiled the consultant, “When I come back next week, I’ll introduce you to Gemba!” The consultant left. The plant manager and I just stared at each other. We just knew that we in for another programme du jour. Thankfully, we never heard about it again.

Back to the article. So in skimming through the dissertation, I learned that Gemba is some gimmick devised to “program” managers into spending an alloted amount of time directly supervising their operations, but of course and as suspected, cataloguing what they see happening according to some proscribed report format. Another report! Just what they need – but this time it’s “Gemba” – so it must be good. The author of the piece seemed very excited about Gemba. He wrote about how today’s managers spend endless hours in meetings, participate in marathon conference calls and have lttle time to spend actually managing. The solution? Gemba! Here’s how managers could be more productive in less time – and fill out even more reports that could be scrutinized (and second guessed) by their superiors. Now anyone can be programmed to be a manager if they have a wristwatch and can fill out a form. Hmmm.

Back in the day, when I was a line operations manager, we practiced something called “management by walking around.” Does anyone remember that? That’s back when managers were supposed to be close to their operations and direct reports. That’s back when managers were told to get out of their offices and get out on the job. We had a few simple easy to understand metrics and we sallied forth. That’s back when management was more art than science. It’s a different thing today. All of the real time metrics, dashboards, decks, KPI’s, etc. that are needed to fulfill a decentralized and often remote top management’s insatiable desire to constantly armchair quarterback operations – and assign blame for bad news, require a tremendous amount of a manager’s time. Many “managers” have now been reduced to mere bureaucrats. How about attacking the real reasons behind the problem?

As I read further, it seemed that the author of the piece was beginning to realize that himself. As his enthusiasm began to wane, I took some solace in the fact he might not be totally brainwashed. I never found out what Gemba means. Is it an acronym? Consultants love acronyms. Is it a classical Greek word? Consultants with PhDs love to use Greek. Personally, I really don’t care.

The ending line of the article really blew me away. The last sentence read, “I know that this sounds silly but it really works.” My comment on his post was equally insightful, “It not only sounds silly. It IS silly!”


7 Responses to “Gemba Schmemba! How Goofy can you get?”

  1. Jon Miller Says:

    Jon from Gemba here.

    Gemba means “actual place” in Japanese. It is very much management by walking around, or as Toyota lives it, the “genchi gembutsu” principle of going to the actual workplace to get the facts when solving problems. This as well as adherence to the scientific method and a commitment to developing people have made Toyota one of the most profitable and most respected manufacturers in the world.

    You wrote as if you know from experience that management by walking around works. Why knock “go to gemba” before you understand what it means? Just because some consultant threw the term around does not make it any less valid as a management practice.

    “Personally, I don’t really care.” You care enough to attack it, so learn something about it first, or you’re the one who looks silly.

  2. thecorporatecynic Says:

    Domo Arigato for the information Jon!

    I can tell by your E-mail address that you obviously work for Gemba, so no disrespect.

    Your tool is one of many that are probably intelligently crafted and well intended when in the right hands and utilized for the correct purpose. . However, if you’ve read “160 Degrees of Deviation: The Case for the Corporate Cynic,” you can see how those 20 degrees of good intentions that corporations have when adopting these tools can be undermined by 160 degrees when the tools are misused, modified or put into the hands
    of nincompoops.

    In an upcoming post, I will write about my experience with TQM. Remember that tool? I am actually a certified TQM instructor (won’t name the method). Being the consummate skeptic and cynic, it took me a while to intellectualize that program. When I did, however, I found it to include some very powerful tools as well and I embraced many of the concepts with gusto. But guess what happened? I worked for a corporation that spent $750K on corporate-wide TQM training and then bastardized the %^&% out of it until it no longer even resembled what I supposed to instruct. Why? The payback on the investment wasn’t being realized fast enough, there weren’t enough OFI’s being written, everyone was spending too much time in meetings and, of course, the executives felt this was a program for the “workers” so they really did not want to get involved.

    Sorry for the sermon but you’re talking to the Corporate Cynic. I love you to death Jon. I hope you make a million bucks and retire early – and happy!


  3. Kathleen Fasanella Says:

    Just because you experienced poor implementation of what *you* consider to be a competing or similar program, does not mean Lean itself is similarly worthy of your cynicism owing to the potentiality of similarly poor implementation. I appreciate your frustration and cynicism born of disappointment through failed implementation after exemplary efforts on your part and I can only hope you will have the opportunity to work in a Lean environment (rather than LAME as Mark Graban says) to understand the benefits. Heck, even the US government thought it was a nifty thing and realized tremendous gains (TWI). Lean has been around for a very long time and it won’t go away, its time has come. My only question is how it got lost for so long.

    PS. I always thought the green belt, black belt thing was lame. Also, I’m not a lean consultant but I did work in a mostly lean plant.

  4. thecorporatecynic Says:

    Spot on, Kathleen! It’s great that you see the frustration and disappointment of those of us who been through a plethora of programs enacted for the wrong reasons, supported only with disinterested lip service and expected to produce instantaneous results.

    And they wonder why we become cynical, skeptical and hostile to any new ideas coming down from on high.

    Watch for the post about my experiences with TQM.

    Have a great day and thanks for your comment!

  5. Idetrorce Says:

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  6. thecorporatecynic Says:

    The beauty of a democracy is that everyone can express their opinion.

    Come back soon.


  7. TheOldPostNecromancer Says:

    I’m working in a French corporate and investment bank (IT) and we are going lean six sigma. I’ve read a little about LAME and it seems our consultant also have… More bureaucracy, (and coming from a French guy, this REALLY is frightening), more useless meeting. I can get the idea of lean six sigma in a plant or whatever producing real goods, employing people with little or no diploma, but we are all engineers at least where I work, and we are feeling like we have gone back to the hardhat trainee status we had during our first year at school. Every minute should be accounted for (for people working 50+ hours a week, paid 35). What is fun is to see how it translates bottom up. Every level of hierarchy is “beautifying” the KPI, so, starting from “this is utter BS” from the base, we arrive at “This is a great success” after only three levels. In my work, my productivity has been cut off a half, almost like everyone else, but we have nice charts to show we are a lot better than before… I think I’ll try to sell lean 6 sigma to others, they are billed 6 times my daily rate for telling fairy tales… I should go for a career change
    Cynically yours,
    The guy who revives posts that are long past their last comment.

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