Observe with purpose
Direct observation has been an under-appreciated aspect of lean for most of its life. It has gotten a lot more attention in recent years, unfortunately, this is thanks in part to the use of jargon, such as gemba and genchi genbutsu. For those of you who know me, you know I hate jargon. It makes ideas inaccessible and confusing. But with this jargon, more people have gotten interested. Even The Economist picked up on the concept:
This is a Japanese phrase meaning “go and see for yourself”, which is a central pillar of the Toyota Way, the famous management system adopted by the Japanese car company. Genchi genbutsu is sometimes referred to as “get your boots on”, which has a similar cadence and meaning. It is not dissimilar to the idea behind management by walking about (MBWA), an all-too-briefly popular American version of the same principle.
First, there is a big difference between direct observation and MBWA. The difference is having a framework for observation. MBWA without a framework for how you digest what you see is just Management by Wandering Aimlessly.
Observation should have a purpose. It is not enough to be “at the gemba.” Before an individual or team tries to practice observation, they should have a reason that they are doing so. It is often defined as a problem statement, gap, or issue. The observation then centers around what I need to learn about that situation that I need to go and gather the ground truth about. In one organization they sent all their engineers to the floor for the first two hours of every day. However, they failed to define the purpose of this “gemba” time. The result was that the engineers stood around in the factory aisles chitchatting instead of standing in an office hallway. Clearly, this is not the result they wanted. Just ask yourself before going to observe “what are we trying to understand?” and you will avoid this mistake.