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| 3 minutes read

How to "go to gemba" in your mobility program

Don't we all deserve a better life, or at least one that's a little bit better? 

For those unfamiliar with the Japanese concept of "gemba" (or "genba") and the terminology associated with it, this article helps define and explain the origin, the ideas and the values that are at its core. It translates literally as "the real place." and is part of the larger concept of "kaizen" (meaning a "change for the better"), which is a "lean" approach to continuous improvement by making small ongoing positive changes to reap significant improvements. In many ways, it reminds me of the elements embedded in design thinking, where the problem needs to be well identified before the process for designing the solution can actually begin.

There are a few different ways to break down the kaizen process. I have seen articles discussing 10 phases or five stages, but I am going with the following six phases in the cycle of kaizen as described by The Lean Way! They are:

  1. Identify a problem or opportunity
  2. Analyze the process
  3. Develop an optimal solution
  4. Implement the solution
  5. Study the results and adjust
  6. Standardize the solution

Let's jump back to gemba though. Gemba refers to the place where value is created. Like the design thinking practice, going to the source of the work and getting insight is critical to designing quality solutions. The term "going to gemba" ("genchi gembutsu") describes the value of going to "ground zero" and truly observing. A "Gemba Walk" is the action of diving into experiencing the work in action. This is where you "go see, ask why and show respect." As you partner with everyone in the process, showing respect is critical. Get as close to the customer as possible, and then work your way back. "Going to gemba" allows you to see in reality all this is truly happening. 

From factory floors, to offices and other kinds of facilities, gemba walks are designed to open your eyes to what’s really happening in your organization. In this video, Gemba Academy Co-Founder Ron Pereira breaks down everything you need to know for the before, during, and after stages of a gemba walk.

Here is the part that reminds me so much of the design thinking process. The Lean Way shares that, "Once problems are identified, the organization needs to enlist the cross-functional personnel to understand the underlying cause of it. The proposed solutions are then tested on a small-scale. Using data, the team makes adjustments to the solution."

Dr. Temple Grandin may be a great example of someone who taps into the concept of a Gemba Walk. As a prominent author and speaker on autism and animal behavior, Dr. Grandin has had a successful career consulting on livestock handling equipment design and animal welfare. In this article, she describes the steps she takes for helping to solve livestock handling problems, but in the process, she has to "go to gemba" and see the design from the animals' eyes. In so doing, she has solved numerous challenges in often simple ways, from recognizing a worker's bad habit of leaving their red coat hanging near the entrance, to developing a squeeze machine that relaxes the animal, to noise reduction in facilities. Over 20 years, she has helped the industry to incorporate small changes that have had a huge effect for the animals and the production process.

So what does a "Gemba Walk" look like for your mobility program and how can you adapt it to talent mobility? This could mean digging into the expense reimbursement process to take a process deep dive before solving for specific challenges, or it could be sitting on-site with partners to observe their service delivery process. With so many companies outsourcing much of the support provided to mobile employees, Gemba Walks could be internally or externally focused, if not both. In the walk, observe, ask why, listen carefully and respect people, as trust is a key element to the improvement process.

Kanbanize explains that performing Gemba Walks on a regular basis can offer some significant advantages like:

  • Building stable relationships with those who actually do the work and create value.
  • Identifying problems and taking actions for achieving continuous improvement much faster.
  • Clearly communicating goals and objectives leading to increased employee engagement.

These all seem like worthy elements of a world-class global mobility program!

In lean manufacturing, the whole point of gemba is that problems in a business process or production line are often easily visible, and the best improvement come from going to 'the real place', where leaders can see the state of the process for themselves. "Go see, ask why, show respect" Over the course of a Gemba Walk, leaders, managers and supervisors are expected to simply observe and understand process. As part of the Kaizen methodology, it is also supposed to encourage greater communication, transparency and trust between the lower-level of employees and leadership. For this reason, it is not appropriate to use a Gemba walk to point out employee flaws, or enforce policy - this runs the risk of employees putting up barriers to leadership, or closing off altogether.


global mobility, lean six sigma, value, consistent improvement, world-class mobility, gemba walk, kaizen, japanese