How one phrase transformed my company
April 9, 2021 | 3:29 pm CDT
Brad Cairns

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at the Center for Lean Learning and Quantum Lean. He also runs a woodworking business called Best Damn Doors in St Thomas, Ontario, Canada.

You wouldn’t have to study lean manufacturing very long before you came across the word gemba. Japanese phrases are very common in the lean world mostly because lean was popularized by in the Toyota Production System originated in Japan. Gemba means “where the work happens.” 


To find the actual gemba, you just have to ask: Where is the value being added for your customers? Typically the gemba is the shop floor. And the value-added work is executed by those amazing people who are transforming your product. Everybody else in the organization is actually considered waste. You heard me right: If you’re not touching the product, your job is non-value added. But don’t despair, some waste is necessary; you’re not out of a job. (Yet.) 


See for yourself
I’m going to lay on another Japanese term for you. If you are in an engineering function or leadership role, this may be more critical than any other job function you have. You probably won’t believe me due to the myriad of seemingly important things on your to-do list, but trust me on this one. The term is: genchi genbutsu. This means “go to the source and see for yourself.”


Like every word that needs some translation, depending on who you ask, you’ll probably get a slightly different version. However, I believe this version to be about as accurate as it can get. A slight twist was told to me by Ritsuo Shingo while I was studying in Japan. Since he is the son of Shigeo Shingo co-creator of the Toyota Production System, I think it’s about as close to the source as we will ever get. Mr. Shingo told us it is not actually going to “see” for yourself, he says it is go and “watch.” And the difference is staggering. 


Ask any plant manager of any factory if they spend time on the floor every day, and I promise the answer will be yes. But I feel like this would be the equivalent of “go and see.” Yes, they are out there, but probably not in one spot for more than 15 seconds. Now, ask any plant manager when was the last time they stood in the corner for six hours and did nothing but watch, I bet the answer is almost none.


Stand still to learn
We as people have this belief that if we’re not working (as in moving or running around or doing something) then we’re perceived as not doing our job, therefore standing in the corner seems very counterintuitive to what we should be doing. This is not a new problem. Taiichi Ohno (father of the Toyota Production System) had the same issue with his managers in the early days of Toyota. He could not get them to stand still, which then popularized the Ono circle. Whereby he would take a piece of chalk, draw a circle on the floor and tell the manager they were not allowed to leave the circle.


When you read that story, you wonder how true it is. How hard could it be to get someone to stand in one spot. Well just last week I asked my production manager to stand with me in the corner. This is one of those moments where I wish I had a hidden camera. I could not get him to stand in one spot for the life of me. When I burst out laughing he asked me what was so funny? To which I replied I think I need an Ono circle!


What happen next was nothing short of staggering. Despite having what we would consider pretty decent processes, in my opinion it was nothing short of a gong show.


Within two hours we had made so many observations for improvement I could hardly believe it. By that afternoon Production was up by 15 percent.


Blame process, not people 
Remember in lean thinking we blame the process not the people. If your people are like mine, they are stuck in a process that you created, and more than likely they are all doing their very best. Never forget this.


If you’re wondering what did I do next, well it wasn’t easy, and in the beginning seemed like it would be impossible. But I cleared my entire schedule, except for meetings with my leadership team, every other waking moment has been standing in the corner of my factory observing. It’s now been two weeks and I have absolutely no intention of leaving the gemba any time soon.


What we saw
So far, I’ve identified four key areas in my organization that desperately needed attention:


We had systems for producing products, but we didn’t have systems for leading production of our products. Developing daily katas (choreographed procedures) for our line leader has been instrumental in eliminating mistakes and at least calming down that fire every leader is striving to put out each day.


When you see a bad situation unfolding, it’s critical not to step in and circumvent the mistake. Use it as a training opportunity for your people. What would you have done differently? How could this have been prevented? What immediate counter measures do we need? Everyone will benefit more having to think about it than just getting the answer.


When it comes to maintaining flow, which is paramount in any manufacturing operation. We have discovered that sometimes it’s very difficult to know where you should go next if flow has been disrupted in your work center. The breakthrough discovery was not only to teach people where they should go, but just as important (maybe more so) to teach them where not to go. And there, by process of elimination, will help direct them to the right spot. 


We now have a one-minute meeting after lunch. We rally the troops, assess how the day is going, decide if any changes need to be made, see if anyone is struggling and needs help. Then we do a little cheer that changes daily but it’s along the lines of “1-2-3 -Hoorah ONE TEAM.” Then we get to work. 


A wonderful thing has unfolded. After two solid weeks of being in the gemba full time, what felt like herding cats in the beginning, has turned into a symphony. My amazing production rock stars now need little direction on maintaining flow. I’ve slowly resumed my other duties. But I’ll never forget this lesson. I even built a makeshift table in the back corner of the factory where I can see most activity. If you ever look for me, don’t start in the office. Good chance I’m in the gemba!

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user bradcairns
About the author
Brad Cairns | President/Owner/C-Level

Brad Cairns is the senior principal at The Center for Lean Learning/ Quantum Lean and is dedicated to improving the woodworking industry in North America using lean methods. He also owns Best Damn Doors, a cabinet door manufacturing business in St. Thomas, Ontario. You can reach Brad at 519-494-2883 or [email protected]