Taiichi Ohno

Gemba Keiei Chapter 26: There Are No Supervisors at the Administrative Gemba

By Jon Miller Updated on January 5th, 2018

“Administrative work is done at the gemba just the same as the production gemba where we make things. The office is the administrative gemba.” Taiichi Ohno begins the chapter.

Gemba is a Japanese word meaning “actual place”. In fact it is written gen-ba but pronounced more like gemba. “Gen” means “real” or “actual” and “ba” means place. Gemba is the site, scene or place where it actually happens, whatever “it” may be.

“No one is watching the administrative gemba” says Ohno. The production gemba is easy to see, but departments where managers work is very hard to see. People in the office may look like they’re working very hard but it’s impossible to know whether that’s the work that is needed right now, he says.

“In the administrative gemba, the managers don’t have the brains or ideas to be ‘supervisors’. They have manager brains.” Ohno says. He is pretty blunt. “I think there are no supervisors at the administrative gemba. There should be.”

Taiichi Ohno continues to explain that supervisors must be able to instruct and also know how to evaluate the results of work.

“The traditional Japanese supervisor does not supervise work. They supervise how the people work. The same mistake is made in both the production gemba and administrative gemba. Supervisors should supervise the progress of work, but they supervise how the workers are moving about. This behavior must be kaizened.”

“I think the manager has an easier job. They can get by with just having knowledge. The supervisor not only needs knowledge but must also be able to demonstrate that they can do the work, in other words they must be able to teach.”

Taiichi Ohno says that there are no supervisors at the administrative gemba because the work is not visible and managers do not think the work requires supervision.

Back in the days when he wrote this chapter, Taiichi Ohno was teaching kaizen and the Toyota Production System to group company Toyota Boshoku. His students at Toyota Boshoku pointed out to him how well their workers were working. Ohno told them that just because the workers’ hands were moving fast did not mean that they were working. The focus on how the workers were moving leads to a search for faster hands, which is not the goal.

“As long as you are looking at motion and not the work, you will not develop the eyes to supervise work.”

Taiichi Ohno compares the supervisor to a manager or coach of a baseball team. A coach needs to be able to play, but a great player may not make a great coach. Just as a coach must know the strengths and weaknesses of the players and be able to guide the team to victory, the production floor and the administrative gemba both need to develop good supervisors.

“The trouble is, white collar folks on a management track are rotated to new positions. So no one is really seeing the work. People work in a position for a few years and then move on. No one really sees what work they did while in that position.”

Ohno criticizes that managers and supervisors don’t think “how much more have I accomplished than my predecessor?” He likens it to government bureaucrats who want to work without causing trouble for long enough to be promoted to higher positions.

“Managers don’t evaluate whether they are getting the same work done with fewer people than the previous manager did. Even at Toyota Motor Corporation this is true. They are not good at administrative kaizen. When they do kaizen they screw it up. The managers are not evaluated on the number of people working for them and the amount of work they accomplished.”

“Do managers think ‘my predecessor did his job with 50 people, I’ll do it with 40’ to themselves?” He asks.

“Managers should evaluate their work by saying ‘I did my job with 50 people last year, I’ll do it with 45 this year’ but they don’t. Instead they just want to make sure they get their job done from year to year. There’s no progress, but their salaries keep going up thanks to the union.”

Although Taiichi Ohno’s focus on labor cost reduction as a focus of office kaizen activity may not be as relevant today when there are so many greater opportunities for overall cost reduction by applying Lean principles to sales, design and planning processes, it is understandable.

Ohno spent many years struggling to cut costs in the factory. The lax attitude of the Toyota managers, the lack of effective administrative gemba kaizen and the non-existence of what he could recognize as supervisors in the office made him write this blunt assessment of Toyota managers and office staff, circa 1982.

  1. J. Zajac

    July 5, 2006 - 7:13 am

    Loved this, but disagree that managers see the need for admin process improvement as “common sense”. In pharmaceuticals, the product requires a disproportionate amount of administrative support to ensure compliance with the extensive regulations applicable to the industry. However, administrative processes are considered less important than making the physical product, so little or no resources are devoted to ‘supervising’ or improving the work. However, the product cannot be released to the public without completing the adminstrative processes, too.
    The opportunities for improvement in this area are immense! Please keep working to spread these improvement philosophies; I think they are finally starting to get off the ground in American industries.

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