Gemba Kaizen – A Common Sense Low-Cost Approach for Organizations

There is a famous quote by former US President Harry S. Truman that goes, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.” Regardless of what business you are in, problems will arise and sometimes these problems are so big that managers must know what to do and act quickly. If you are involved in manufacturing or product production, problem-solving methods like Gemba Kaizen are crucial in order to keep the line moving.

Usually, there are two approaches to problem solving. One approach involves buying the latest high-cost technology such as innovative machinery and computers; but this usually costs a lot of money. The second approach is low-cost and involves using common sense tools, techniques, and checklists. Since most companies are involved in making money instead of spending it, the second approach, Gemba Kaizen, is a more common choice.

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Planning and working together for success is a common goal for most managers, supervisors, engineers, and rank-and-file employees. Management should always be challenged to attain higher goals while first-line supervisors should also challenge workers to do a better job. Although many managers today do not focus on this role, Gemba Kaizen helps managers learn the values that are derived from common sense, order, self-discipline, and economy.

What is Gemba Kaizen?

Gemba Kaizen

This concept originated in Japan so the word is Japanese, but used in the English language. Gemba means “real place” or simply put, “workplace”. In manufacturing, the Gemba is the factory floor. Kaizen is translated to mean “change for better” or “continual improvement”. When you combine these words together, it means “continual improvement at the real place”.

This Japanese company philosophy focuses on the continuous improvement of production, employment, and efficiency. Designed to optimize the workplace, its approach is to arrive at productivity growth within an organization. It involves the continuous development of quality techniques by using a method that has a set number of principles and objectives that can be used for any organization.

Gemba Kaizen first arose from a cooperation program that was established by the US Department of War which was responsible for helping to establish industries in Japan after World War II. Toyota was one of the first companies first to implement this method into its production process. This method has since been influenced by American businesses and quality management teachers. Masaaki Imai, a Japanese organizational theorist and management consultant, is also credited with popularizing Gemba Kaizen in Western countries.

The Gemba Walk

This practice was first implemented by Taiichi Ono who was an executive at Toyota. He would encourage staff to stand back from their day-to-day tasks to provide them an opportunity to walk the floor of their workplace and identify wasteful activities. Leaders would then identify safety hazards, observe equipment and machinery conditions, ask about standard practices, gain knowledge about work status, and build employee relations.

This practice is now one of the five lean guiding principles and should be practiced by managers and staff on a daily basis. When implementing Gemba Kaizen, this activity is important for management to get out on the front lines and look for waste and opportunities to enforce this methodology. Also, it allows management to understand the value stream better as well as problems that are associated with it instead of just reviewing results or making superficial comments that do not provide better results.

Principles and Objectives of Gemba

There are set a number of principles and objectives that organizations can use to achieve actual improvement in the workplace. Here are a few terms you must be familiar with to implement Gemba Kaizen effectively:

Total Quality Management (TQM) - Known as “Muda” which means “waste” in Japanese, this concept is all about reducing and eliminating waste. Activities that do not add value should be reduced or removed especially if they incur more costs.

Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) - This principle helps to identify which processes are complicated and expensive. When standardizing production, these processes should be avoided

Just-In-Time (JIT) - Organizations can economize costs related to inventories and stock-carrying costs

Zero Defects (ZD) - Cost savings can be realized with the optimization of quality by preventing errors and adapting the quality requirements of the customer

Now that you are familiar with these terms, there are four key principles you should understand about Gemba Kaizen:

Problem Identification

You should understand that there is always room for improvement and whenever a problem arises, everyone concerned should brainstorm to find the best solution to implement.

Raising Standards

Processes have to be measured to make improvements in business operations. This philosophy challenges prevailing standards and replaces them with newer and better ones that are constantly searching for continuous improvement.

Start with the Easiest Changes First

Once a problem is identified, start with the easiest changes since they have the highest possibility of success. This way, it will be easier to move on to the next bigger change.

Employee Involvement

Every employee within the organization should take part in the decision-making process. A system that relies on employees to determine improvements is necessary for changes since employees know how to carry it best out and improve the system.

Gemba and Kaizen Daily Activities

As mentioned before, the Gemba Walk is a practice that should be done regularly in any lean workplace to see what actual practices are known. Commonly, this practice is done with a lean teacher (Sensei) who is usually outsourced to spend six months to a year with the company. Executives and managers should suspend at least 45 minutes to an hour every week or two with the lean teacher. Afterward, they can regularly walk on their own.

Daily activities can also include:

  • Emphasis on action
  • Team-based activities
  • Focus, rapid improvement
  • Ongoing organizational learning
  • Employee empowerment

Gemba Kaizen activities change not only the systems and processes, but also the employees and the culture in the organization. In particular, this method changes how employees view their job.

5 Tips for Successful Gemba Kaizen Management

Tip #1 When a problem occurs, go to Gemba first.

Managers are often uninformed about problems or troubles in the workplace due to a lack of communication. To solve these problems, a manager needs to understand the issue on a first-hand basis, and this involves going down to ground zero to understand the problems from all possible angles. Failing to follow this tip will result in conveniently blaming fellow workers by questioning their competency and skills.

Tip #2 Check machinery, tools, rejects, and customer complaints.

While making your Gemba walk, look for issues that create the problem in the first place. This includes checking the state of machinery, manuals, equipment, computers, customer’s register, or any other records that will help identify root causes. Observations that are in-depth and accurate will bring out ambiguities that need to be fixed, and you will avoid blaming the problem on one party since that will never solve the problem in the first place.

Tip #3 Take temporary countermeasures immediately

It is not enough to just recognize the problem. You must take immediate action to resolve it by showing others that change is needed. Taking temporary action may come in the form of writing down instructions, making a checklist, or creating a daily reporting system which will show immediate results. Often, your temporary plan may become permanent.

Tip #4 Find out the root-cause

Once you understand the situation, become well-informed, gather evidence, analyze it, create alternatives to avoid similar situations, and take temporary countermeasures, it is now time to find out the root-cause of the problem and devise alternative solutions. No matter how tough it may seem, it all lies in keeping an eye on all the details.

Tip #5 Standardize to prevent recurrence

Once you have arrived at the best alternative solutions, it is important to standardize them for further improvement. This may require new training for employees or just simply let them know about the new changes. Standardization can only happen if you have full cooperation from your employees and they fully understand the need for change. This will also help instill a sense of responsibility towards work.

The Benefits of Gemba Kaizen

There are numerous benefits for organizations across a range of sectors when Gemba Kaizen principles are implemented successfully.

Here is a list of the top 10 benefits:

  • Employees can identify workplace needs more easily
  • Someone on the line is always thinking about problems and solutions
  • There is little resistance to change
  • Greater possibility for continual adjustment
  • Real solutions can be obtained
  • An emphasis on common sense and low-cost approaches for solutions are used versus other costlier and method-oriented approaches
  • People enjoy the implementation and they are inspired
  • Employee awareness of changes and work efficiency are enhanced simultaneously
  • Employees are more aware of the implementation of this method while working
  • There is no need always to gain upper management's approval to make changes

Changing the Culture with Gemba Kaizen

Whenever changes are implemented, you should also expect some resistance. With the proper planning and management, you can easily implement Gemba Kaizen to change the culture of your organization for the better. One mistake managers commonly make in an organization is failing to create a communication plan. This is necessary to define the future state after changes are made and then implement, monitor, and support the change.

In addition to a communication plan, education and training may also be necessary. This can include making an assessment of the gap between current knowledge and skill levels and the desired levels to achieve the new desired state. New training, refresher courses, and measurement of performance levels may also be required.

A reward or recognition plan is also helpful to change the culture by identifying behaviors that are desired and need to be encouraged. At the same time, management should stop rewarding old ways and undesirable behaviors. Destructive behaviors should be penalized. Reward achievement should be given to those who successfully make new performance measurements and support the desired state.

A Common Sense, Low-Cost Approach to Continuous Improvement

Several organizations worldwide have benefited from this business philosophy because it enables leaders to achieve performance goals through the continuous improvement of systems, people, and processes. It is one of the five key principles in lean manufacturing and a useful tool for managers who have to manage multiple projects and make decisions quickly.

Gemba Kaizen is one of the underlying factors for successful quality management. It is important to understand the principles and methods of this philosophy to implement it successfully. It is also necessary to follow the tips mentioned and understand the benefits of this philosophy to reach its full potential. People have to think that they need to get better and believe they can do it and this powerful business philosophy shows them exactly how to go about it.

Author: Eric Raio

Eric Raio is one of the founders of Factory Solutions. When he isn't plotting new ways to create awesome software. He likes to geek out about flying drones and technology.

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