Another Good Reason to Walk the Gemba

By Jon Miller Updated on November 2nd, 2015

Creative Commons
Office work in 1950s America
Creative Commons

From factory floor to hospital floor, the people who work on the gemba have long suspected the existence of a negative correlation between how much time management spends in the office and the quality of the decisions they make. Now, we have some scientific backing for this idea.

First, let’s review the good reasons to increase the amount of time we spend away from the office and on the gemba. Simply put, many of the facts needed to manage well, to satisfy customer needs, to find root causes leading to problem resolution, to monitor process performance and to pick up innovative ideas, and so forth, can only be found on the gemba. Various expressions such as go see, gemba walk, genchi genbutsu and management by walking around all express the common gemba principle that we gain valuable insight when we wear down more shoe leather than conference room chair leather.

Gemba kaizen is the progenitor of the kaizen event, designed to rapidly test improvements in a short period of time based on direct observation of the workplace. In healthcare, the gemba principle has been incorporated into rounding by physicians. In product development, people are encouraged to “get out of the building” to learn how actual users interact with product ideas, before investing a lot of development time in them. The gemba principle is everywhere in good management, once we learn to recognize it.

Not least among the reasons to walk the gemba is that leaders, professionals and office staff really can’t demonstrate respect for customers and frontline workers without doing so. But we also need to show respect for professionals and managers who work in the office, by encouraging them to do something good for their health and cognition by getting away from their desk and out to the gemba.

A recent study by the Environmental Health Perspectives, part of the National Institute of Health, may have indirectly revealed the effect that not-going-to-gemba has on the eroding quality of managers’ thinking. The study found:

Office workers had significantly improved cognitive function scores when working in Green and Green+ environments compared to a Conventional one. Exposure to CO2 and VOCs at levels found in Conventional office buildings was associated with lower cognitive scores compared to levels in a Green building. 

In other words “good ventilation, good thinking.” The findings are not particularly surprising. We don’t really need a NIH study to learn that raising the level of unbreathable CO2 and VOCs in a building will have a bad effect on people’s efforts to think. Most conventional office buildings were designed to minimize energy costs by reducing temperature change from outside air. People did not take into account costs from reduced cognition, to say nothing of productivity lost due to health issues caused by poor air quality. Short-term thinking and local optimization once again create larger systemic long-term losses. Give me a cheap hotel room with a window that opens over an hermetically sealed luxury suite any day.

In my experience, the average gemba nearly always has better ventilation than the back office that supports it. There are also the positive health effects of standing up walking around. Words we might see on a marketing poster for lean management: Fresh air, fresh ideas. Go to gemba. And so that’s another good reason to walk the gemba; getting out of the office building and into some fresh air improves our thinking.

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