Posted on August 19, 2009 · Posted in Lean Thoughts

Let’s be clear. I’m typing this article on a computer, so I’m not a technophobe. I recognize the tremendous advances that the computer and the Internet have afforded humankind in general, and moneymaking ventures in specific. The problem I find with computers is that they have removed us from face-to-face interactions with other humans.

Go into any office area in any organization and you’ll find employees pounding away on keyboards or studying monitors intently. Come back two hours later, four hours later, eight hours later, and you’re likely to see the same behavior. The sad thing is that too many of our leaders are leading, even promoting, this behavior.

If the typical leader wants to know what is happening in their marketing organization, they look at the screen. If they want to know what’s going on in the warehouse, they call up shipping records or receiving records or accounting records … on the computer. What they don’t do is walk out to “see” those areas and the people who operate them.

Countless studies bear testimony to the fact that people enjoy recognition. Who isn’t aware of the Hawthorne Study and the fact that simply paying attention to the environment of workers led to greater productivity? People like to know that their contribution is recognized, even if that recognition only comes in the form of catching them doing their job in the place where they work.

The Toyota culture, and by extension Lean cultures, capture this reality with two concepts.

The first concept is Gemba. Gemba, translated as real place, acknowledges that activities occur in real places; e.g., accounting takes place in … Accounting. Good answer! Engineering takes place in … Engineering! Isn’t this easy? Marketing takes place in … Marketing. You get the drift.

While this really does seem easy, every day we have executives, middle managers, even supervisors, who look for engineering designs on … their computer; who look for manufacturing information on … their computer; who look for marketing information on … their computer. Can you see the contrast? We’ve substituted real place for virtual place.

Add the second concept, Genchi Genbutsu, and you get an even clearer perspective of how Lean leaders carry out their fact-finding. Genchi Genbutsu translates, go and see. Put the two concepts together and you get “Go to the real place and see for yourself.”

To be sure, Lean leaders spend time in front of computers, but it is a fraction of the time they spend in Gemba. Modeling Toyota, most of their time is spent in real places talking to and observing real people and the activities they perform.

When issues are discussed, Lean leaders have been there, seen it and know what is being discussed. Moreover, their workers have seen them in their work places and have been engaged by them in conversation.

Lean leaders don’t presume to know everything. When they go to Gemba, they listen. Sometimes the conversation only reinforces what they suspected, but often they gain new knowledge, and deeper understanding once they have seen the issue from the eyes of another.

Taiichi Ohno, one of the legends of Toyota and putative father of the Toyota Production System, believed so firmly in the concept of Genchi Genbutsu that he would periodically send an engineer to a manufacturing area, draw a circle on the floor and have the engineer stand in the circle and observe a process until Ohno returned. It was not uncommon for the engineer to spend the entire day in the Ohno Circle then to be asked: “What did you observe?”

Ohno believed that such deep observation led to deep understanding. From deep understanding, he reasoned, comes change for the better, Kaizen. Isn’t that what we all want?

Beyond deep observation, going and seeing leads to deepening the relationship between leaders and led. It contributes to the aligning of goals, meaningful conversations and the development of relationships.

You can question this last benefit, but ask yourself this: Who performs all of the functions that lead to the manufacturing of your products or the provision of your services? Unless computer actually make your product or provide your service, then there must be someplace else, a place where labor gives birth to creativity, to product, to service. This is where you should be looking on a regular basis.

Consider a Zen-inspired comparison: “Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky, words to a finger. The finger can point to the moon, but the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.”

Educators warn of the social retardation caused by children spending too much time playing video games. Can the same not be said of their parents in the workplace?

In the end, every endeavor is about the inter-relationships of people. Machines are only tools, useful and necessary tools, perhaps, but not a substitute for people.

Data on a computer screen is nothing more than a finger pointing at the moon. It is not a substitute for firsthand observation, any more than the finger was the moon. Human endeavors create that which is eventually reflected on a computer screen. Computer screens cannot capture the intricate distinctions.

Do not mistake a finger pointing at the moon for the moon. While each is important, one cannot replace the other. And if you want to know about the moon, then you’ve got to go and see the moon, not a monitor full of data about the moon.