Joseph Paris, founder of the Operational Excellence Society and the newest addition to the editorial board of LMJ, explains what going to the gemba means.

I love the smell of machine oil. I love to hear the clanging and clanking of machinery in operation. I love the banging when one machine hammers away at a piece of metal to form it into something new or the high-pitched “whir” of a loom or spinner in operation. And I love the way huge apparatus groan and creak, as if they are alive and straining under the pressure of the heavy load they are baring.

And I especially enjoy watching the people hard at work creating things that other people will use. To watch an inspector strain under a magnifying glass or microscope to make sure the product is to specifications; or the whizzing around of the forklifts and the occasional and unique “beep-beep” to let them know they are coming through; or the machine operators as they watch the mechanical monsters that are their charge toil away; precisely, steadily, relentlessly.

Indeed, there is nothing like walking around a shop floor and just observing man and machine.

And a person can tell a lot about a business’ operations, culture, and its health from just walking around the shop floor. When I walk a shop floor (or warehouse) I can almost precisely predict which companies are destined for success and which ones are bleeding cash or on the “morphine drip” – on the path to their demise. In lean, we call walking the shop floor by a person in management a gemba walk.

There is usually a single entrance to the shop floor that is closest to the general manager’s office. In almost every plant, the best looking part is the one the manager can immediately visit – I will call it “the foyer”. This area of the shop floor, closest to this particular door, is in the finest shape as compared to any other place in the building. It has the best lighting, the shiniest floors, the newest machines, the boxes have no creases or dents, and the tools and inventory are (mostly) put away. It will certainly make the best impression available to anyone who might look inside – much like the foyer to a home.

This is precisely what the general manager wants to see when he looks out the little window in the door – and it is this view that he projects as existing throughout the rest of the facility. The workers on the shop floor are eager to support and perpetuate this myth because it means the general manager will stay in his office and not have cause to inspect the rest of the facility; especially – God forbid – the warehouse. The illusion is complete.

But looking through the window is not going see. Going to the gemba means you have to be prepared to get dirty and you have to be prepared to see what you don’t want to see – the waste and corruption.

I once went to a manufacturer of computer cabinets and racks – the kind that you see in pictures of server farms. The owner was very proud of his facility and on the surface it might have looked like there was a proper degree of order. But when I looked on the floor, I saw parts lying about – and parts are inventory. I also saw hand tools such as screwdrivers and drill bits on the floor. When I questioned the owner, he didn’t seem to think it was a big deal. I began to take a tally of the inventory and tools I saw laying around and, later, asked the inventory person to give me the costs of the items.

Much to the surprise of the owner (but not to me), the value of this casual and certainly incomplete assessment of inventory and tools that were cast about the place was in excess of $5,000. Even worse, an inquiry into the janitorial team resulted in the discovery that they routinely sweep up and throw away this inventory each and every week (fortunately, they recognised that tools have value and should be saved). Quite probably, the annual value of the loss just from discarded inventory alone was in excess of $250,000 (probably closer to $400,000 if a full assessment had been done). If you add to that lost productivity as a result of looking for misplaced inventory and tools, redundant purchases, expediting fees, etc… the annual loss could reasonably approach $1m.

After this awakening, the business owner said: “How can we get the people on the shop floor to understand this? They never even look down!” I disagreed with him and responded, “They look down, they just don’t appreciate what they see – just like you didn’t.”

To demonstrate: the next morning, before anyone else came to work, we walked the shop floor together and placed money in a dozen disparate locations around the facility – always within three feet of an inventory item or tool that was strewn on the floor. And we did not place a large amount of money, just amounts ranging from a quarter ($0.25) to a dollar.

By 10am, all of the money was gone – but the inventory and tools were still there. The owner asked my advice as to how he might get his people to see that this is waste, that the practices are wasteful, and that the behavior needed to change. I told him:

  • First, YOU have to realise that everything is money. Not just that it costs money, but that it is actually hard cash money. You have to believe that a hinge lying on the floor is cash. When a box of material is moved, you have to believe it’s a till full of cash. When you throw product away, you are throwing away cash. And when your product is stored on the shelf, it’s the same as putting cash under your mattress – not working for you at all and hardly safe.
  • Second, YOU have to live this. You have to be ever-vigilant in seeing where the cash can become lost and where it leaves. You have to get out of your office every day and walk the floor, look around, talk with the workers – and listen to them. And you have to be pro-active in stopping the haemorrhaging, wherever it might occur (even in your own office). Lead by example.
  • Third, YOU have to instil this new way of life as part of your corporate culture. You have to communicate it effectively; tell of the new way and the reason behind it. People will accept it when they understand that there are benefits – if not directly to them, at least to the business for which they work. This, in turn, will increase the likelihood of the business existing in the future – and along with it, their jobs.

There are virtually an infinite number of opportunities a visit to the gemba might illuminate. But you will never see them if you act like an Apparatchik – you have to turn off your spreadsheet, pull yourself out from behind your desk, and go see.