Gemba Kaizen - Achieve more with less.

Here is a scenario, let’s imagine that your country has just been demolished and ruined by war while you are an industrialist that is trying to succeed in such an environment. Most of your factory buildings have been destroyed, there is a shortage of supplies and on top that half of your staff is gone.

How do you cope with this situation?

This scenario is what many Japanese industrialists were put up against when World War II ended. Truth is they coped very well, in fact they even managed to show fantastic results, without even having the fundamental resources. Because of this, Japanese industry grew massively in a short time period. It’s the dream of every manager/owner to achieve everything while using the least possible resources. Apparently, it’s already possible to do that, no matter where you are located and without spending a large amount of money on technological upgrades.

A vast amount of companies, located on the west side of the world are already taking advantage of the unique Japanese production modes. By doing this their success rises annually. You would ask, what exactly are they doing? Keep reading this article and learn about one amazing technique: Gemba Kaizen. Through it you will be able to survey all work tasks, eliminate everything that is not essential, while also having all your employees involved in this process.

On top of that, you will learn about:

  • How does the usage of red tape improve production;
  • How to solve any issue by just asking five simple questions; and
  • Why managerial absence from the office is actually a good sign.

Gemba Kaizen is a low-cost strategy that increases productivity by involving employees to help eliminate nonessential steps.

Most likely you are interested in increasing productivity in your company. To do this, you would probably hire an expert or maybe acquire some extra equipment. However, in most cases, adding extra stuff is not the answer to your productivity issues. To be honest, it often backfires which results in quite the opposite effect.

Contrary to this, the Gemba Kaizen approach helps you achieve greater productivity through the process of elimination. By analyzing work operations, most of the time we find several sections that are not helping with the creation of the end product and yet they waste a lot of time and energy.

These uneconomical elements are often called “Muda”. By removing their presence, essential resources could be used for something that is more productive. An example of muda can be things like overproduction or wasted time caused by suboptimal transport.

Even walking from one point to another can be considered muda. This notion was noticed and thanks to it some drastic changes were applied to US hospitals. By carefully designing the hospital, the walking distance of the whole staff was reduced by a couple of miles. With time, employees were able to complete all tasks in half the time!

Gemba Kaizen proves that employees are actually the real professionals and all day to day tasks should be handled by them and not by the managers. If you put your employees as the central figure of the company then increased productivity is guaranteed. Additional expenses for consultants and innovations are not needed. The employees, helped by their managers should be the ones that constantly search for ideas that will improve the company.

Gemba Kaizen can be applied to a variety of different businesses.

The Gemba Kaizen method can be used to bring improvements to all fields of work. The story of Gemba Kaizen began with Toyota, as it was the only method deemed good enough to save them.

As a country, Japan is not rich with natural resources. On top of that, after World War II the biggest portion of their industrial infrastructure was demolished. Resources were seriously scarce and no one could afford to waste any. Whoever got hired was hired for life, so staff improvement played a vital role in Japan’s economic success as well.

At that time the owner of Toyota, Toyoda Kiichiro, together with industrial engineer Taiichi Ohno, came up with the widely known Toyota Production System that is based directly on the Gemba Kaizen principles.

By following the Toyota example people started using the term Gemba Kaizen only when industrial tasks were mentioned. However, this method can be used anywhere. By eliminating non-essential steps, a lot of hospitals and insurance brokers increased their productivity.

Clinical pathways is a method which comes very close to Gemba Kaizen. This plan is used by hospitals in their quest to reduce costs and improve results.

Then there is also the ‘lean administration” method which uses several ideas from Gemba Kaizen. All administrative work can be improved by following this approach, even simple tasks like drawing up birth certificates.

Based on everything mentioned above you can clearly see why a lot of companies are taking advantage of the Gemba Kaizen approach. Reducing misspent resources and improving productivity is an idea that is applicable anywhere. So, how can you take advantage of the Gemba Kaizen method?

Flexible standards help companies thrive.

A lot of companies are trying to adapt to this approach, however, there are several that excel at doing it. We can compare their organization to the one ant’s have, which is impeccable. Ants developed fantastic order by following standard procedures, which is something we can all benefit from.

Having strong standards means everyone knows what to do and when to do it. This removes mistakes that could occur due to the behavior of several individuals. All new workers look at the standards in the workplace so they can fit in easily.

Creating standards gives power to the employees, motivating them to share their ideas, thus increasing their job commitment. By closely following standards efficiency is increased as well. Back in 1961 a European and a Japanese electronics manufacturers started a mutual project. They used the same machines but somehow the Japanese workers managed a productivity rate of 99.2 percent, while the European ones managed only 98 percent. What was the difference? The Japanese workers used standards.

Self-discipline allows workplaces to create and sustain efficiency.

Putting standards aside, self-discipline is another vital part of Gemba Kaizen which is why self-discipline has a crucial role in Japanese culture. The Kaizen philosophy led to the creation of very important practices, based on self-discipline. They are known as the five Ss.

The first S is Seiri, which stands for removing all non-essential items from the Gemba. This is how this Kaizen technique is used, the manager will go around the Gemba and he will tag all unnecessary items with red tape. After that, the employees are allowed to speak against the labeling of a certain object and they will have a chance to prove why they think so. At the end, all marked items are removed.

The second S is Seiton, which stand for straightening things out. All essential items should be located in a fixed place, so anyone can find them at any time. Then comes Seiro, which suggests keeping the workplace clean and tidy.

Seiketsu is the fourth S and its stands for systematizing and making sure that the previous steps are being followed.

Putting these four steps together will bring you to the fifth one, Shitsuke. This S stands for preserving and standardizing what was already accomplished.

The five Ss are very important for most Japanese companies and they strive to fulfill them to the maximum. There was a case were Japanese managers visited a German factory because they wanted to buy it. However, after noticing that employees were smoking in the Gemba, they were no longer interested.

If you want to create a Kaizen philosophy then these 5 Ss are essential for that task. To take advantage of the other Kaizen tools, first a well-organized workplace must be maintained.

Visualizing work processes allows for quicker troubleshooting and stronger employee motivation.

Visualization is another thing that can help speed up work tasks. A lot of people claim that they like to think visually, which is quite normal because that’s true for most people. Visual management allows workers to think outside the box and better understand any abstract situations.

Another thing where visual management comes handy is to control standards better. Managers do not have the time to look around and search for hidden problems. A better option is to use visual tools to locate all the necessary information.

For instance, the manager can put a mark on the place where the worker should be standing. When the manager makes his round if the worker is not on his mark, it will be noticeable right away. There is also the possibility of using a whiteboard, where all the daily goals can be written and followed up until they are completed. Through visualizing the managers and workers will be able to notice any possibilities for further improvement, immediately.

If you have two production lines, one for manufacturing front tires and the other one for rear tires and if you monitor all their work you can follow and compare their productivity. If all finished products are noted on the whiteboard you will be able to notice which production line is faster and more productive. This way you can switch workers around to balance out the production so there are no delays.

Visual management can also motivate the employees because they will be able to see all their hard work and progress. This tool is essential for large, complex work environments. It’s not expensive and it saves a lot of time.

Once the Gemba Kaizen method is set up, we should start discussing the importance of the upper management.

A Kaizen approach is not complete without a CEO who practices what he preaches.

Gemba Kaizen is much more than a simple method, which is why it should be implemented by the head of the company. The head is the leader and he should lead by example.

A CEO needs to make it clear to all employees that the Kaizen method will be implemented. Everyone needs to follow this and get aboard or the productivity will never increase. However, there are cases where workers refuse to change, which is where they need a little push by the CEO.

A good example for this is Art Byrne, the lean manufacturing legend. Every time he is assigned as a CEO of a company he takes the time to introduce the whole Kaizen system to the management. He is very strict, so everyone has to agree, all managers that are indecisive will get fired right away.

Any successful CEO needs to get familiar with the Gemba as well. The CEO should work on creating a positive environment, which will guarantee improvement.

For instance, the first goal could be to lower the amount of time that is spent on a certain task by 5 percent. As soon as that goal is done, another one has to be set up immediately.

Maintaining new goals constantly will give you a process that guarantees improvement. However, it is very important for the CEO to be strict and to implement everything, so the employees can follow his example.

Good managers work in the midst of the Gemba.

The only way to understand and manage problems is if the manager is familiar with the Gemba. We mentioned above that standards are one of the most important things to the working process, so they need to be implemented at all times.

If a pizza place has mozzarella spoiling over every day, the solution would be to have the workers wash their hands more often. With time this practice will become a standard.

For this to be successful, the manager needs to check if the workers are doing it. If he doesn’t, workers tend to forget with time.

To achieve constant improvement all the managers have to do their part. Only by doing this the successful future of the company will be guaranteed. The place where these improvements should happen is the Gemba, which is exactly where the managers should be. Being active in the Gemba will allow the manager to notice where Muda elements are, how to remove them and also check if there is room for improvement.

The founder of Honda, Soichiro Honda never had a place he could call his office. He was going around the Gemba all the time, controlling everything. If the manager is always there to monitor work the workers get highly motivated. With time they start to use all elements of Gemba Kaizen which makes the employees self-disciplined.

The whole process of maintenance and improving the company happens right there within the Gemba. Because of this, the manager should be there doing his job at all times. By being active in all fields within the Gemba, managers will have a bigger understanding of all their workers and vice versa. This will create mutual respect and faith, which will, in turn, increase productivity. To have a successful and positive Gemba Kaizen practice, all these integral elements need to be maintained.

Final Summary

The Gemba Kaizen principle exists to give businesses constant improvement and to successfully make every worker self-disciplined. To work perfectly managers need to be fully familiar with all work-related tasks. Gemba Kaizen uses several very simple, standard techniques which can be used in any type of enterprise to increase productivity and maintain success.

Actionable advice:

As it was mentioned at the start, asking five questions should be all that is needed to get to the bottom of any issue.

The next time you try to solve a problem, use this technique. Five questions that start with the word ‘Why’ have to be asked in order to handle the issue.

For instance, why are workers constantly absent? Why are a lot of workers getting hurt in the Gemba? Why is the floor wet all the time? Why is the machine leaking? Why isn’t the valve properly tightened? Answering the questions one by one will bring you to the solution.