Whose Gemba Is It Anyway?

“Gemba” is an important concept in Toyota Production System (TPS) and Lean. Gemba, the Japanese word, can be translated as the actual place. The etymology of Gemba stems to “gen” (meaning “actual”) and “ba” (meaning “place”). One might say that the first lesson in TPS is to go to the gemba. This is often expressed as “genchi genbutsu” or “Go and See to grasp the facts from the source.”

My take on gemba is that it is to do with reality as the word suggests. From here, I will ask the question – whose gemba is it anyway? I am asking this from a post-modernist/Constructivist angle. We are all meaning generating, sensemaking autopoietic creatures. We are organizationally closed, and this means that we generate meaning from the many interactions based on our internal meaning-generating framework. Reality as we perceive it exists in a socially constructed realm and each one of us have our own take of this. There is no objective reality in practice, simply because we do not have direct access to it. Our meaning-generating framework is an emergent property of our brain that has to rely on our sensory organs to make sense of the sensory input coming in. The meaning-generating framework or schemata is ever-evolving and conditioned by our ongoing experiences.

From this standpoint, when we say that we are going to gemba, we need to realize that the gemba as we perceive it is not the same as the gemba perceived by the operator on the floor. Normally, in the manufacturing world, gemba refers to the production floor where the work is taking place. We go there with our preconceived ideas and notions. Thus, the first step is to realize that the gemba as we see it is not what we need to be seeing. The gemba that we need to visit and understand is that of the employee engaged in the actual work. Our role at the gemba is to develop the others and in the process develop ourselves. This circular nature of gemba, understanding and sharing our understanding; developing others and developing ourselves, is very cybernetic in nature. When we try to reflect on our understanding, we are also required to view it from the eyes of the operator who is doing the actual work. Taiichi Ohno, the father of Toyota Production System explained these ideas really well.

Taiichi Ohno described the production floor as a “silent” space that always heightened human awareness and stimulated our imagination. Ohno advised:

When you give an order or an instruction to a subordinate, you have to think as if you were given the order or instructions yourself… You have to struggle together and think about the problem together.

Ohno advises that we should challenge our team members, and in the process challenge ourselves. We should be aware of what we are asking, and in fact we should be able to understand what is doable and what is not doable. If our team member says that the task is impossible, we should be able to counter that. Ohno says:

If you want your subordinate to feel so squeezed that they believe saying “It is impossible” is not an option, you must feel the squeeze and struggle just as hard with it yourself when you give your subordinate the problem.

Here the phrase “feel the squeeze” refers to the challenging process where the employee is pushed to see the problem and come up with a resolution. It is this challenging process that aids in the development of the employee. Ohno wants us to destroy our various preconceptions on a daily basis to further our understanding of gemba. He said:

Another way of stating the essence of the Toyota Production System is to say we are doomed to failure if we do not initiate a daily destruction of our various preconceptions.

Ohno challenged the then prevalent Ford’s Mass Production system with his ideas of a Limited Production system. He offers one more aspect of “whose gemba? thinking”. He noted:

The real waste is making products that don’t sell. Even quality products, if they don’t sell, must be discarded. This waste, in fact, is the most crucial because it is not just a loss to the company – it is a loss to society… The original concept behind Toyota Production System was the total elimination of waste. Carrying this to its logical conclusion, it follows that the function of industry is to accept orders not from an abstract clump known as “the masses,” but from individuals with unique preferences, and to produce similar items accordingly. Waste and high costs occur when we try to produce similar items in large quantities. It is cheaper by far to produce unique items one by one.

Final Words:

Being aware and recognizing that the we are in a social realm and that our perspective of reality is not the only one is of utmost importance. There are multiple perspectives of gemba, and the one that is most important is that of the actual employee most engaged with it. At the same time, we should engage with them in bettering their understanding of their gemba.

I will finish with a very insightful anecdote from the linguist Lera Boroditsky:

Kuuk Thaayore, are an Australian people living primarily in the settlement Pormpuraaw. Boroditsky talks about an experiment that she did with the Kuuk Thaayore. She gave them a set of photographs of her grandfather, ranging from youth to old age, and asked them to order them in the correct sequence. She repeated the test different times. Each time, the sequence of the order was correctly placed, however, the orientation was different. For most of the wester world, we would say that the correct order is from left to right, where the “left side” represents the young age, and as you move towards your right, the subject gets older and older. The Kuuk Thaayore oriented the photographs sometimes left to right, and sometimes top to bottom, and other times diagonally. Boroditsky realized that in their culture, their spacial meaning differs from us. She noted:

“their arrangements were not random: there was a pattern, just a different one from that of English speakers. Instead of arranging time from left to right, they arranged it from east to west. That is, when they were seated facing south, the cards went left to right. When they faced north, the cards went from right to left. When they faced east, the cards came toward the body and so on. This was true even though we never told any of our subjects which direction they faced.”

 If we were to see the orientation, we might say that the Kuuk Thaayore got it wrong. We might say that the correct order is always left to right. It does not matter if we are facing north or east or west, we would always place it left to right. Boroditsky says that perhaps we are so self-centered that we always assume that orientation is based on our self-reference whereas Kuuk Thaayore people are externally-centered that their orientation depends on whether they are facing north or east or west.

The next time you go to gemba, ask yourself “whose gemba is it anyway?”

Please maintain social distance and wear masks. Stay safe and Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Notes on The Good Regulator Theorem:

5 thoughts on “Whose Gemba Is It Anyway?

  1. Thank you Harish. Yes, the observer-observed in an endless dance. The real waste might also be in making the conditions for our collective survival more difficult and not help people create a better future for themselves and next generations (I know this is debatable). I recall a Toyota expert saying, who had been helping on a hospital project to improve the service in the area of eye surgery (with an almost complete reduction of waiting times for patients who were severely hindered in their life because of their illness), that he never felt more purposeful as in this project. And I think he had been working for more than 20 years. How are we spending our lives? Of course we can produce more and more and better cars, but is that really that is important in terms of priorities?

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