Operations Leaders Must Go to the Gemba

By John Maculley


Gemba Kaizen, as a practice, is focused primarily on improving the conditions that allow employees to thrive.

Have you or your staff ever studied manufacturing processes or mapped value streams to improve the flow of information or materials required for production? This approach for continuous improvement is a common practice in most high-tech companies, yet it often overlooks the most critical factor of great operations—people. Operational processes can be analyzed and optimized from theoretical perspectives to reduce bottlenecks and improve throughput. However, without setting foot on the factory floor and speaking with operators, it is nearly impossible to understand the plethora of constraints impeding best-in-class production. Operations leaders must be in the place where value is created, otherwise known as going to the Gemba, to see what cannot be seen from a distance.

Going to the Gemba

When working with clients to improve product development, our priority is to observe operations first-hand and interview as many stakeholders as possible to distinguish between the reality and perception of operations. We almost always find that employees genuinely want to do their best work and contribute to their company’s success. Unfortunately, they lack the necessary tools and training or are required to perform their functions using antiquated processes and systems. This reality produces inefficiency, higher defects, increased costs, and lower employee morale.

Without going to the Gemba, well-intentioned operations leaders often invest in optimizing processes from theoretical perspectives and are dumbfounded when their anticipated improvements never transpire. The symptoms of a top-down approach are higher-than-average scrap rates, increased employee turnover, and divisions between management and staff. New processes and systems often compound the situation when they are applied without first eliminating the baggage of the past.

By asking simple questions, such as what is working well, what is not working, and what needs to change, operations leaders gain valuable insights and demonstrate empathy in the process. Once armed with reality, their next step is to involve staff to solve the issues by forming small teams and training them on the Kaizen philosophy.

Philosophy of Kaizen

The term Kaizen, translated as “change for the better,” was coined in the mid-1980s by Masaaki Imai in his book KAIZEN—The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success. Imai speaks of Kaizen as a mindset and, to achieve breakthrough performance, a critical vehicle to achieve strategic imperatives. Gemba Kaizen, as a practice, is focused primarily on improving the conditions that allow employees to thrive. There are three areas of waste or inefficiency that, when reduced or eliminated, help improve operations:

  1. MUDA—unnecessary activities that add no value
  2. MURA—overburden of employees
  3. MURI—unevenness of work

Kaizen events provide the structure necessary for subject-matter experts to share their tribal knowledge and lessons learned to better the organization as a whole. Through a process of brainstorming, identifying root causes, testing hypotheses, and designing future processes, Kaizen teams are empowered to propose and implement critical changes that otherwise may have gone unnoticed by a top-down approach.

Types of Kaizen Events

Kaizen events may focus on improving a specific product, such as its manufacturability, or on the process of Design for Manufacturability across a product portfolio. In either case, the overarching objective is to improve the operating conditions for the entire enterprise. Participants must consider the interrelationships of processes within and across functions to ensure that an improvement in one area does not cause inefficiencies in another. Depending on the issues to be solved, the focus of Kaizen events can vary. There are five lenses that Kaizen event sponsors and teams may choose:

  1. Point—improvement of an isolated problem
  2. System—improvement of a functional process
  3. Line—improvement of a cross-functional process
  4. Plane—improvement of a product’s value stream
  5. Cube–improvement of interrelated processes (e.g., suppliers)

The challenge for operations leaders is to select broken processes that require focused attention while also building a portfolio of continuous improvement projects, including quick fixes, systemic changes, and company-wide transformations.

Key Success Factors

Kaizen events are typically led by trained facilitators who guide teams through the process from characterizing issues to implementing solutions. Operations leaders who are new to this approach should start with minor improvements to build cultural momentum and broadly communicate measurable results across the enterprise. Additional success factors include:

  • Small Teams—for optimal engagement, limit teams to 6–8 members
  • Leads—assign team leads and empower them to make decisions
  • Members—choose members with deep experience in the targeted process
  • Representation—create cross-functional teams to maximize perspectives
  • Accountability—hold teams accountable for measurable outcomes
  • Recognition—celebrate team successes and individual contributions

Operations leaders can significantly transform their organization’s efficiencies and improve their staff’s working conditions by taking the initiative to go to the Gemba and sponsoring Kaizen events. In time, the continuous improvement flywheel will turn from the momentum generated. According to Masaaki Imai, “You can’t do Kaizen just once or twice and expect immediate results. You have to be in it for the long haul”.


About the Author

John Maculley is a principal with Accel Management Group. In this role, he helps clients grow their companies and improves their operational efficiencies by designing and implementing customer-driven innovation and product development frameworks. Maculley brings more than 20 years of high-tech industry experience, enabling him to deliver innovative methods to improve time-to-market, reduce costs, advance performance, and increase revenue.