Lean Office

Genchi Gembutsu in Aceh, Indonesia

By Jon Miller Published on November 3rd, 2005

Indonesia was not high on the list of places I thought I would read about an example of Lean government. So I was pleasantly surprised to find an article on the front page of the November 2, 2005 Wall Street Journal titled After the Tsunami, An Aceh Surprise: Good Government.
In an example of “genchi gembutsu” Indonesian government officials are going to the site of the fishing villages devastated by the tsunami and they are asking fishermen their advice on where to build a new dike in order to protect the the village in the future.
“They asked us what we know and what we wanted,” a fisherman named Zamzami is quoted. “It’s taken time to do the talking, but now we think they are doing the job right.” When is the last time you were able to say this about your civil servants?
Those of you who follow the Japanese terminology for Lean manufacturing will recognize genchi gembutsu as literally “actual place, actual thing”. This concept places an emphasis on making improvements by going on-site and based on observable facts. A more apt translation may be “go see and get your hands dirty”.
William M. Frej, director for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Jakarta, praises the Indonesian government’s efforts at spending the $6 billion in reconstruction aid received received from the international community. “One of the positives coming out of this tragedy is that this government is doing things right. There is a strong focus on transparency and accountability.”
This new, more transparent, and empowering approach at public works is directed by the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias (or BRR in Indonesian). The approach by BBR of asking the local people (or the “process experts” in Lean terms) for input on improvements is a good example of practical Lean government.
The global consulting firm McKinsey is credited with pushing for this genchi gembutsu aspect of the BBR in seeking local input. McKinsey has had a TPS-style Lean practice in their Production System Design group for a couple years now so there may be a connection.
It may seem like common sense to “ask the customer” what’s needed but it’s rare in government. Sadly, massive spending happens based on policy, political philosophy, strong beliefs held by a relatively small group of people (as opposed to facts) or based on the assumption that elected civil servants and appointed officials are the experts and don’t need to ask the locals (taxpayers) how the money should be spent.
Imagine if we ran our factories, hospitals, and other private enterprises this way. What if decisions on buying assets, hiring people, selecting of suppliers, giving safety training, repairing equipment, etc. were decided based not on the needs of customers and employees and what makes money instead but on what made the managers popular and would get them “elected”. Factories wouldn’t function very well at all if we ran them like we do our governments.
When private enterprises lose money, they don’t have the ability to tax their customers to stay afloat. So they will have to continue doing kaizen by genchi gembutsu. At least they will be ready to teach our government officials how it’s done when they come asking.

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