Get to know your process (Go to Gemba)


Organizations throughout the Government are looking for ways to reduce their budgets or to identify ways in which they can continue to function with spending freezes, hiring freezes and even budget cuts.  The time when hiring was the solution to all problems has come and gone.  Repetition of work and activities that are based on outdated policies or regulations that are no longer in place needs to become a thing of the past.

For the last decade, the federal government has flirted with the idea of Lean Six Sigma, a hybrid model that often resulted in forcing two methodologies together which work well in sequence, but often fail when applied in tandem.  On top of that, organizations bought into a training model that allowed contractors to deliver on enormous contracts without any return on investment other than the number of people trained.    Lean and Six Sigma are not a failure in the Federal Government; there are numerous cases where a focused approach tied to an organization’s strategic goals has worked.  The days of train and leave must come to an end.  It is time for best practices to be captured, strategies to be tied to initiatives, and projects (not training) to be completed and demonstrate a return on investment.

Step one is to get to know your processes.  Senior Managers can no longer sit in their offices and send out taskers to find out where things are only to be disappointed when they do not get the answers back that they expected.  It is time for Managers to go to where the work is done and to walk the processes.

The word “Gemba” means “real place” or “go see”.  In the context of fixing your work environment it means that management needs to go to the place where the work is done and is responsible for seeing for themselves.  Going to the place where the work is done allows managers to observe the “As-Is” condition of their processes and is vital in identifying and defining any problems that may be occurring.  One of the most important aspects of Gemba is understanding that just because a process is written down, or included in an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), does not mean that the process is being followed.  Actual observation of the process from end to end, mapping the process “As-Is”, and timing how long each step takes, provides managers with a true sense of the size and scope of the problems in their processes.

So before you start sending out taskers or making phone calls to see what the problem is, try going to where the work is being done and see for yourself.  Below is a beginner’s guide to walking your process:

  • No matter what you are processing, whether it is a product or a document, be the item.  Start at the very first step and follow it from beginning to end
  • Speak with every person that handles the item and find out what their roles and responsibilities are in regards to the item
  • Record your observations but do not make changes or draw any conclusions until you have seen the whole process
  • Work as a team, preferably with someone who is knowledgeable about the process and someone who is unfamiliar with the process and can see things that an expert might take for granted
  • Document all of the methods used and note and variation in methods or deviations from the Standard Operating Procedure
  • Once you have walked the entire process, compare notes with you partner/team.  Identify the differences between what you saw and any issues that can be fixed.

I will talk about what to do with your findings in my next post but, for the time being, go to Gemba.  You might be surprised by what you find.

David Allway
MSI Sensei

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3 Comments

Filed under Lean Six Sigma

3 responses to “Get to know your process (Go to Gemba)

  1. Prof. Gene Woolsey of Colo School of Mines became famous in the OR community for his unique approach to Gemba. Using a 3 x 5 card, he would label himself as the object of a process. Then he would physically move through the process as if he were the object. He would observe, yes, and take notes, but he would also interview people at every stage. He did not call it Gemba or MBWA. He just figured the best way to improve a process was to first understand it, and the best way to understand it was to immerse himself in it as fully as possible.

  2. Manny Barriger

    Totally agree : the issue that I have often seen is that everyone knows there is a process – and results happen, but not very often is there clear documentation or measurement of it’s effectiveness.

  3. Wee Hock

    Many years ago, I read a Japanese book call “Gemba Kaizen” and I was fascinated with the concept. It taught many Japanese managers to be observant and sensitive to the process design of the operations. Every where we go, we should see opportunities for improvements. I started to champion 20 kaizen projects/year in the beginning and went on to 80 projects/year. We even keep records of projects which we championed each year, their performance/results both tangibles and intangibles together with $$ cost-out.

    We expect every supervisors, line leaders and managers to become champions and conduct gemba walk everyday. That is how we sustain Lean in the organization. That is how we educate and promote lean to every single employee in the organization. Then we went on to train our suppliers and external partners about Lean. We do Gemba Kaizen with them and demonstrate the power of Lean.

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