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Gemba - short version

The real place or the specific place. Usually means the shop floor and other areas where work is done.

Gemba - long version

Gemba (現場, genba?) is a Japanese term meaning "the actual place" or "the real place". Japanese detectives call the crime scene gemba, and Japanese TV reporters may refer to themselves as reporting from gemba. In business, gemba refers to the place where value is created; in manufacturing the gemba is the factory floor. It can be any "site" such as a construction site, sales floor or where the service provider interacts directly with the customer.

In lean manufacturing, the idea of gemba is that the problems are visible and the best improvement ideas will come from going to the gemba. The gemba walk, much like MBWA or Management by Walking Around, is an activity that takes management to the front lines to look for waste and opportunities to practice gemba kaizen, or practical shopfloor improvement.

In quality management, gemba means the manufacturing floor and the idea is that if a problem occurs, the engineers must go there to understand the full impact of the problem, gathering data from all sources. Unlike focus groups and surveys, gemba visits are not scripted or bound by what one wants to ask.

Glenn Mazur introduced this term in the Quality Function Deployment (QFD, a quality system for new products where manufacturing has not begun) to mean the customer's place of business or lifestyle. The idea is that to be customer-driven, one must go to the customer's gemba to understand his problems and opportunities, using all one's senses to gather and process data.

Customer visit

A gemba visit is often simply called a customer visit. The hallmarks that make it uniquely useful are:

the purpose is firstly to observe, occasionally to question, rarely to guide or direct
the visit occurs in the context where the product or service is used, which allows direct observation of problems that arise, workarounds that are applied, and capabilities or services that are never used
sometimes the customer (or client or user) is asked to describe what he is doing while he is doing it; this provides insight into the thought processes, which often reveal differences between the customer's mental model and the model of the developers or providers of the product or service.
the customer will often express wishes or needs while working in context that would be forgotten or suppressed in a different context such as a structured interview or sales meeting
Common cases for a customer visit include:

enhancing the features or usability of products (especially software) or devices (especially ones aimed at very broad or very niche consumers)
improving processes or tools

Managerial style

Toyota have a very high proportion of their management on the shop floor (the gemba) so that supervisors can be intimately involved in quality issues as they arise. Their presence in the gemba informs their decision making and speeds resolution of problems. This gemba attitude is driven by the belief that all customer value is created in the gemba and it is therefore the qualities of the gemba which will determine the success of the company.

Although Gemba visits are unscripted and very much depend of the sensei conducting the visit, they broadly serve four purposes. As a manager, the gemba Visit is a key lean management tool to:

check your own assumptions by finding out facts at the source; The general idea is that in lean you only learn when you've discovered you're wrong, so the gemba visit is a privileged place to test your own assumptions about what is going on in the process by checking specific instances. More often than not, indeed, something else is going on;
get people to agree on the main problem. A significant difference in lean management is the insistance on agreeing on the problem before arguing about the solution. Discussing what the problem really is often occurs during the gemba visits as the manager starts asking 'why?' repetitively and different answers emerge. This key practice is about forging a common understanding of the problem, which will make converging on a solution both more accurate and much easier in implementation terms;
listening to frontline workers to try and fix some immediate issues - there are many practical problems which are easy to solve from a management point of view but which can remain daunting for staff. One of the difficulties of the gemba visit for managers is to listen even when one hasn't got an immediate solution to hand. Showing respect means aknowledging that every issue is legitimate and to be taken seriously. On the other side of the discussion, the gemba visit is a platform to share management's objectives with frontline workers and give them a broader perspective on what the company tries to achieve - not piling up rocks, not building a wall, but building a cathedral;
finally, on key aim of the gemba visit is to check whether progress is happening at the desired pace. Maintaining the kaizen spirit is never easy and depends on management focus on moving on with things (safely). Regular gemba visits are the occasion to judge the speed of progress and, as such, show the area manager in a very different light - with an development action plan in the follow up.


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