Lean Leadership: Going to the Gemba

Gemba is the Japanese term, used by Toyota and other lean practitioners, that refers to the “actual place” of an activity or event.

For those who don’t actually work in the Gemba, a visit to the Gemba (a “Gemba walk”) involves specific objectives such as understanding the nature of a process problem, confirming how the process actually works, and showing respect to those who do the actual customer value-generating work.

Gemba is not industrial tourism or another name for “management by walking around.” Instead, it is the idea that

  1. The purest way to grasp all aspects of a process situation including soft factors such as morale and, where applicable, the customer’s experience, is by leaders directly experiencing the reality of the process themselves;
  2. Although well-designed metrics – as we will discuss later in this article – can provide practical insight, the philosophy of Gemba is that any metric, no matter how well conceived and used, is an abstraction of the reality of the process.


Lean expert Masaaki Imai perhaps said it best in a series of lectures on the importance of leaders going to the Gemba:

“Gemba is like a mirror that reflects the quality of the management. Because if the manager is sitting behind the desk and waiting for the report to come to him or her, that is not the reality. It is what we call fabricated data. Because somebody was there, not you, and this person saw what happened in his or her own judgment, made a conclusion and sent the report to you.

But if the manager takes the trouble to go to the Gemba right away and have a good look, you are right in the midst of the reality. You don’t need a fishbone diagram or a pareto chart. What you see is data and often times you can make decisions based on what you see and that’s the beauty of going to the Gemba.” (Source: Gemba Academy)

Many of us have witnessed the impact and power of “going to Gemba.” When leaders engage in no-B.S. direct contact with customers, suppliers, and frontline staff and managers, they come away from this experience with a grasp of the reality that no amount of PowerPoint decks can hope to replicate.

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