Home Management Gemba Walks and The Undercover Boss Part I

Gemba Walks and The Undercover Boss Part I

by Guest Writter
Colin D. Baird, Vice President, Sullivan Curtis Monroe

Gemba is a Japanese term used in the lean world to define “the place where things are happening”, and genchi genbutsu means “go and see for yourself”. In American terms we might refer to it as Management By Walking, or Get Your Boots On.

CBS television has a hit show in Undercover Boss. The premise is that executives visit locations away from their offices where they don a different identity.  Employees not recognizing the boss are willing to give them far more accurate information about what it’s like to work for the company than the boss gets from his own leadership team.

Are there similarities between gemba, genchi genbutsu, and the success of Undercover Boss? Absolutely.

By going to the gemba, Japanese executives experience the same conditions, and see and feel many of the problems their employees deal with daily. Newly minted executives in Japan often work the same job as the employees they serve until they fully understand the requirements of the position. By encouraging and working with employees they lead, teams find better ways to eliminate waste and improve flow. Stakeholders benefit from more active employee engagement, and increased employee based problem solving skills.  Simply “going to the gemba” though has little effect without the appropriate actions being taken that engages and solicits employee input.

Could it be we can all learn something from gemba walks and Undercover Boss? Should bosses even have to go undercover to learn where waste, flow and employee disengagement collide within American industry today? In a truly engaged culture, employees and leaders share problem solving responsibilities that often arise while continuously improving in a lean operating environment. In a culture where people are afraid of, and sometimes even intimidated from speaking to managers who have traditionally led by means of the carrot and the stick, going undercover may help us discover things we don’t already know, but it’s not going to be the most effective way to improve the overall culture.

It’s important to understand what makes Undercover Boss so successful. Employees want to be heard! They want to know who their bosses are. Being active and engaged at the worksite helps accomplish this objective, going undercover does not. The simple fact of having to go undercover demonstrates the idea that employees may not feel comfortable discussing ways to improve the business with you.

What steps can you take to more actively engage your workforce?

Step 1

Make yourself visible, emotionally committed, and actively engaged in your employee’s lives, and worksite environment. It is hard to trust someone you don’t know and see. This starts the processes required to increase trust and foster open lines of communication. Patrick Lencioni outlines this in Five Dysfunctions of A Team where trust is the foundation upon which everything rests.

Step 2

Go to the place where things are happening and experience them for yourself. Employees want their leaders to spend time with them at the place where things are happening so everyone can experience and understand the same conditions together. This is genchi genbutsu at its core.

Step 3

Teach, engage and empower employees to spot ways to improve processes in their environment, while eliminating unnecessary steps and waste that don’t add value directly to your product. To better recall examples of waste, you may wish to use the acronym of TIM WOODS (T)oo much transporting, excess (I)nventory, excess (M)otion, (W)aiting, (O)ver processing, (O)ver production, (D)efects, and under utilized talents/(S)skills. You may wish to even have waste detectives who are trained in spotting, and eliminating wasteful steps in processing, distribution, etc.!

Step 4

Use KPI’s as indicators that problems may exist within specific areas, but go to the location and spend time understanding what the people are seeing, not just what the KPI’s are indicating. Metrics tell a story, but not the entire story. Your employees have solutions to problems, while KPI’s are just indicators. Engage your employees in active problem solving to increase trust and improve communications.

Step 5

As is in any coaching arrangement it is important to understand that your employees are adding the most value to the customer’s product, you are not. Your responsibility is to coach and lead, not to manage, or tell. Employees add direct value to your customer’s materials which becomes visible in the physical transformation from raw materials into finished goods. The value you add is indirect and not visible.

We can start improving the culture by routinely going to the gemba, and conducting more routine genchi genbutsu, benefits from both concepts are highlighted in Undercover Boss. In part 2 of this story you will see two examples of what happens when you get it right at the gemba, and what happens when you get it wrong.


About the Author

Colin D. Baird, Vice President at Sullivan Curtis Monroe implements strategies and process improvements that improve operating efficiencies using a holistic approach to reducing risks related to people, excess motion, and waste. His approach mirrors those developed by Toyota Production Systems (TPS). By teaching leaders how to spot and eliminate waste, stakeholders achieve greater operating efficiencies while improving their organization’s culture and employee engagement.

Colin encourages leaders to utilize the Japanese concepts of genchi genbutsu (go and experience things for yourself), and gemba (go to the site where work is being done). He routinely coaches leaders and those they lead in their actual working environments.

He enjoys public speaking, writing, and is a contributing author to various industry publications.

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