A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
February 28th, 2014 by William

There’s Water Sloshing Around the Engine Room

Last week I wrote about the dos and don’ts of the leadership practice of “Management by Walking Around” (MBWA). I pointed out that one of the key things to remember about an effective walk is that the boss shouldn’t immediately try to solve the issues or problems he/she discovers. That’s not the intent of MWBA at all. However, if the intent of the walk is to find issues then there is another way to do that: “The Gemba Walk.”

The term is really “Genba,” a Japanese term meaning “the real place.” In business, genba refers to the place where value is created; e.g., in manufacturing the genba/gemba is the factory floor. The Gemba can be any workplace such as a construction site, sales floor, office, anywhere value is added to a product or service. Taiichi Ohno, an executive at Toyota, led the development of the concept of the Gemba Walk. The Gemba Walk is a fundamental part of the Lean Manufacturing philosophy.

In lean manufacturing, the idea of the Gemba Walk is that the problems are usually visible, and these issues can be readily seen if you just look for them in a concentrated effort. The Gemba Walk’s ultimate goal is to find improvement ideas that can only come from going to the gemba. In other words, if you’re the captain of the ship and you want to know if there’s water sloshing around the engine room the best way to find out is go to the engine room. As Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho, described it, “go see, ask why, show respect.”

The “Gemba Walk,” much like Management by Walking Around, is an activity that takes management to the front lines. Pun intended it’s an opportunity to get your feet wet. In the Gemba Walk management goes as a group to the workplace, whereas in MBWA it’s best for a manager to go alone. The objective of the Gemba Walk is to understand the value stream (process) and identify problems (waste) rather than do a meet and greet.

In the United States, Kaizen and Kaizen events are usually thought of as the way to accomplish discovering value stream problems, or waste, and to make overall changes in the processes used to make the product. These Kaizen events can become week long projects singling out a specific workplace area, or department or a specific process. The intent of a Kaizen event is to fully change an area of work (value stream) in one concentrated effort. However, informal Gemba Walks by management can help achieve a step change, or frequent, incremental improvements−which was the original concept of Kaizen.

In my own experience Gemba Walks took the form of daily “stand-up” meetings, usually first thing in the morning, out on the production floor, or anywhere convenient for all the players to assemble. Along with identifying problems it was a good time to review whether a project was on schedule or not, because a project not on schedule is the perfect segue into discovering the problems that put it behind schedule. These get-togethers also allow for a review of what was accomplished the previous day and what needs to be accomplished the current day. In a way it’s a method of micromanaging without the debilitating results that occur when management plays “bring me another rock” from the safety of their offices.

The Gemba Walk works because it brings together the critical players in a workplace (operators, managers, quality, maintenance, engineers, etc.) so that they all hear about problems at the same time, and see the same data and can immediately offer their expertise. They are therefore all in a position to quickly decide on a course of action, and to initiate that action. The speed with which problems can be resolved can be dramatically increased compared to traditional problem solving which would wait for a problem to percolate up through the management layers and then percolate back down for action.

That all said, the Gemba Walk or Management by Walking Around, in the wrong management hands, can lead to organizational disaster. We must remember a Gemba Walk or Management by Walking Around is not an opportunity for the boss to find fault in the employees. Blamestorming should never be a part of a Gemba Walk. If the Gemba walk is used as a punitive tool, employees will shut down and resistance to change will rise rapidly. Thus management must think before talking. Many managers suffer from what’s called “situational amnesia.” Employees don’t suffer this–they remember everything.

Thus, management’s method of direct interaction with the employee’s is the most important aspect of the Gemba Walk. Management must make the employees feel respected throughout the process–as Fujio Cho described it: “show respect.” If management appears to “know it all” then there’s no point in doing the Gemba Walk−all it will do is alienate the workers and build a wall between them and management. The idea is to draw on the expertise of the workers most familiar with the work. Also, if real change is to be realized, management must be willing to follow through with the necessary changes. That’s not the time to tighten the purse strings.

Whether MBWA or the Gemba Walk there is one prerequisite for success−both work best in an organizational culture that is open and where people generally trust each other, i.e., the organization is not dysfunctional.

Just like finding out if there’s water sloshing around the engine room, Gemba Walks help management best assess how well the organization is tuned to seeing issues, analyzing them, finding their causes, and solving them. This is an important point to make: the Gemba Walk is an opportunity to see teamwork, or lack thereof, in action. These may be more valuable insights than finding a problem with a product design or machine. You find out quickly whether all the harping and pontificating, and strategically placed posters about the necessity of teamwork, trust, and empowerment actually made a difference in your organization.


2 Responses to “There’s Water Sloshing Around the Engine Room”
  1. Kenneth Tristan says

    Keep on working, great job!

    • I recently came acsros your site and find it well grounded in the human aspects of the lean principles. That should not come as a surprise to you however, I have found in most failing lean efforts this is a root cause for failure or recurrence. Regarding your 9 causes I think you could add the failure to effectively respond to the abnormality. The old saying “if its not important to you (leader) then it’s not important to me” must be offset by rapid and effective response. This promotes the behavioral change in the work team so that they adopt the new behavior or visual aid.

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