Early in my professional career I worked as a Process Engineer at Nokia (in their mobile phone division).
I had many responsibilities but, ultimately, my most important job centered on ensuring all of the equipment was producing cell phones that worked the first time.
Go to Gemba
We lean practitioners often preach about the importance of going to gemba, or the place the work is done, in order to understand what’s really happening.
I’m happy to report that I did a pretty good job at this as a young process engineer. You see, I had no choice; my desk was on the production line!
This meant if a production operator had a question they could turn from their machine and be at my desk in seconds.
This also meant if an andon light, or buzzer, went off I was close and could respond immediately if needed.
And because I was constantly at gemba, I knew the processes. I could hear, and many times feel, when something wasn’t right just like a parent can hear or sense when their child isn’t feeling well.
And, most importantly, I was able to build a strong bond with production operators, supervisors, and technicians. We were like extended family members all working together. I still consider many of them friends to this very day… I even got a LinkedIn message from one yesterday as fate would have it.
So, to be sure, “working at gemba” had tremendous upside.
Another aspect of my job focused on preventive maintenance and built in quality.
As such I was constantly performing Process Capability studies across all of the equipment to ensure things were running smooth.
We also used extremely high tech optical inspection equipment to examine the circuit boards as they moved down the line.
Well, as with any sort of measurement equipment we needed to perform MSAs (Measurement Systems Analysis) to ensure the equipment was working in a repeatable and reproducible manner.
We also leaned heavily, no pun intended, on Statistical Process Control in order to alert us of any special cause variation that may have snuck its way into the factory.
And, finally, I performed hundreds of DOEs during my days at Nokia.
Many were small, 2^2 full factorial designs, that took very little time to complete. But I also performed some pretty awesome, and rather complex, Central Composite Design (CCD) DOEs in order to really dial a particular process in.
Best of Both Worlds
So, the point of this article is simple. I was successful at my job because I worked at gemba and also knew how to do more advanced statistically based analysis.
I could have stood at gemba all day long and watched our processes spin out of control without a clue as to how to help. I could have even asked why a million times and, sometimes, never identified the root cause of the problem.
Likewise, I could have sat in an isolated office somewhere studying my Cp and Cpk results from afar and sounding an alarm when something went wrong.
Had I done either of these in isolation I’m convinced I would have failed miserably at my job.
But, because I did both – lived and worked at gemba and leveraged statistical analysis – I was able to do very well. I also had a tremendous amount of fun.
You Don’t Have to Choose
Sadly, I often sense so-called “lean folks” feel as though they’re selling out if they use or learn statistically based tools.
And I also sense so-called “six sigma folks” feel as though they’re too good or too smart to spend a lot of time at gemba. Instead, they feel like they can perform some Minitab magic and solve all of HRs problems without talking to a single person.
Both of these “purist attitudes” are dangerous, wrong, and extremely short sided in my humble opinion.
Honestly, I could care less what you call yourself. Call yourself a Black Belt if you want… but make sure you’re at gemba more than your office.
Or call yourself a Lean Practitioner or Lean Consultant…. but make sure you know how to perform basic statistically based tests since being at gemba to see defects running off the end of the line may not be much help.
As continuous improvement practitioners the good news is we don’t have to choose. We can learn everything there is to know about making things better.
Do You Agree?
Do you agree with me?
Perhaps you’ve seen folks constantly at gemba without a clue as to how to help or perhaps you’ve seen people whipping up all kinds of fancy charts and graphs but never stepping foot onto the shop floor.
No matter the situation I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you think?