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!”