One of the essential principles of lean management is go to gemba. This is far more than literally going to the scene of the problem when doing root cause analysis or going the occasional gemba walk. It is an “ism” or philosophy that recognizes that in order to serve our customers and respect our people, we must place the highest value on the actual place where we create value, the gemba. This is a principle that is universally true, independent of sector or type of work.
It is true because processes that create value or destroy it through waste exist not in our imagination, but on the gemba. It is true because the only way we can improve a situation is to grasp its reality based on facts, found on the gemba. It is true because the only place we can observe and appreciate our customers, employees or partners is on the gemba, where their humanity is revealed. The gemba is a broad concept whose exact location is situational. Nevertheless, gemba-ism is perhaps the most intuitive, commonsense principles of lean management. As easy as it is to understand, gemba-ism can be hard for people to practice consistently.
Toyota is famously gemba-centric. And yet in recent years they have struggled to maintain the focus on the gemba. In the early 2000s the push to digitally streamline product design and push for suppler cost reduction resulted in uncharacteristic quality issues. With success, it is human nature to believe that it is no longer necessary to leave the comfort of the office tower and dig fingers into the grime of the factory, like the previous generation did. As a mega corporation, the gemba-focus message must reach more people, many of whom work far from the gemba. There are fewer and fewer leaders at Toyota who remember the early days of struggle to establish, maintain and sustain kaizen on the gemba. When Akio Toyoda took over as CEO a few years ago, one of his signature actions was to re-emphasize this basic principle.
The commitment to gemba of Toyota executive vice president Mitsuru Kawai is a rarity, even at Toyota. He served as general manager of the Forging Division as deputy plant manager of the Honsha Plant, and several other senior management positions. In April 2017, he became executive vice president and chief officer of the Safety & Health Promotion Division. He is the first person at Toyota to be named to the executive ranks who rose through the ranks, starting as a factory worker. His job requires him to occupy an office on the 15th floor of Toyota’s headquarters. He received permission from the CEO to locate his office near the gemba at the forging plant.
Kawai lost his father when he was in elementary school. His mother was determined that Kawai would graduate from high school, but Kawai did not like schoolwork or do well in his studies. He applied to Toyota Technical Skills Academy. His middle school teachers said he was too stupid to pass the Skills Academy entrance exam. But he was. There students did half practical training, half schoolwork and were paid. Kawai became a Toyota employee in 1966 at age 17. After more than 50 years at Toyota, he has become a teacher for the next generation of managers.
This 7-minute YouTube video, from which the images in this article are taken, show the viewer a day in the life of a gemba-focused executive VP at Toyota. Here is a brief summary of its contents.
0:00 When the CEO first asked him to take the EVP position, Kawai declined. He didn’t want to be an executive. Toyoda persuaded him, saying he needed Kawai to carry the banner, to represent Toyota values for the next generation.
0:24 Kawai arrives at the Toyota plant at 6AM. He does this every day when the plant is in operation. At 630AM he bathes with factory workers leaving the previous shift. He has done this since 1966. He has two lockers, the extra one being a gift from an employee when Kawai was promoted executive.
1:37 As staff report to work, he meets with them to discuss kaizen activities and factory operations.
1:50 Why did he locate his office by the factory? The sounds, the smells, the air in the forging plant, peoples’ facial expressions, all keep his senses sharp. Otherwise he would lose his feel for the operations.
2:33 Kawai walks the gemba whenever he has time.
2:40 He encourages people to refine their skills, not to become overly dependent on automation.
3:29 He finds joy in seeing evidence of kaizen efforts each day. “The power of Toyota is that the gemba is reborn daily.”
4:06 At the Kamigo plant, Kawai coaches the Super Skill Line. This is a project whose purpose is to make it possible for people to work on the production line up to age 65, by simplifying manual labor tasks.
If you look carefully the video shows examples of pokayoke and karakuri, making a tricky process simple with minimal automation, such as the template for applying adhesive, at 4:50. “If it is easy for a 65-year-old worker to do, then it will be easy for any worker to do. As a result, quality and productivity will be higher.” Easier leads to better and faster.
6:00 Kawai speaks at a kickoff meeting for a new gemba kaizen sharing and learning (yokoten) forum, “If you think something is good, try it, even if your boss disapproves. We rely on you. I will take all responsibility. You take action freely.” This is reminiscent of the cover Eiji Toyoda provided for Taiichi Ohno when he was facing strong internal resistance in the early days of experimenting with the Toyota Production System.
6:30 “They say we are in a once-in-a-century time of change. We can win, no matter what problems or challenges we face, because we are developing the next generation of people. They will say, ‘We will do it, we will see this through no matter what.'”
Kawai has basically been working in the Toyota factory since he graduated from junior high school. He knows more about managing and developing people, continuous improvement and leading a complex manufacturing operation than the top MBA-MBB-PhD-EVP with fifty years of conference room experience. Kawai is setting the example, leaving deep footsteps for the next generation of leaders to follow.
EDIT: Due to popular request, here is the full English transcript of the video.
0:01 to 0:05 What did you think when President Toyoda asked you to take an executive position?
0:05 to 0:15 “I declined. I said, ‘I absolutely don’t want an executive role.’ And the President said, “Do it for the next generation of people at Toyota. I need you to set the example.”
0:17 to 0:22 Akio Toyoda asked him, “I want you to represent Toyota as an executive.” He started from the factory floor and became a vice president. How does he spend a typical day?
0:23 to 0:29 6M, Toyota Motors Honsha plan
0:29 to Kawai always comes to work at this time on days that the factory is operational
0:30 “Good morning.”
0:34 The forging department building, called “Forging House”
0:38 “Good morning”
0:40 His executive office is located in one corner of the Forging House
0:49 Why does Kawai arrive at work so early
0:53 to 1:04 “The shift handover for first shift is at 630AM. I arrive 1 or 2 hours before the office start time. It is my daily routine to always take a bath in the morning. I have done this daily since joining the company in 1966.”
1:05 The “Forging Onsen” is a bath house within the Forging House
1:07 “Good morning”
1:12 Kawai’s locker is located in the same locker room as the employees
1:16 “This is my locker.”
1:19 “You see it says ‘spare’ here?”
1:22 “When I became an executive, one of my juniors who was responsible for the lockers said to me, ‘Old man, since you got a promotion, I’ll get you some kind of gift.’
1:32 “What are you going to give me?” I asked, and he said, “You can have this locker.”
1:38 When business hours begin, staff report to Kawai about kaizen activities and operations in the factory
1:41 “Good morning. Thank you for your effort yesterday.”
1:50 Why he locates his executive office in the “Forging House”
1:52 “Here I can see people’s faces. There is the sounds, the smells, the air in the forging plant. All of this keeps my senses sharp. Otherwise, I would lose his feel for the operations.”
2:08 “I also eat lunch here. Every day at the same time, I see the same people. I can sense whether things are going well, or if there are problems, I can tell. I think this comes from my intuition from all of the time spent walking the gemba. I arrive early, I bathe here, because I don’t want to lose that sense.”
2:34 Even after becoming an executive vice president, Kawai walks the gemba whenever he has time
2:39 “Are you well?” “Yes.”
2:41 Thoroughly developing peoples’ skills
2:44 “You mustn’t believe ‘We don’t need to think anymore,’ just because you monitor and do everything. The purpose is to keep making progress, to keep improving. It is not good if we think, “The sensors on the machine will surely detect the problem.”
3:07 “The robot will do what you teach it, 10 or 20 times, one after another. But the robot won’t do anything more than that on its own. You have to raise your own skill, and teach the robot to do it better.”
3:25 Kaizen does not end
3:29 “I am very happy that things are changing every day. On every walk, I notice ‘That diagram has changed,’ or ‘They were able to shift that work,’ or ‘Now the robot is doing that.’
3:40 The fact that there are changes each time I visit tells me that people are doing kaizen. Everyone is trying to make good products at lower cost.
3:52 “This shows me that the gemba is alive. It is changing every day. It is reborn every day. I think this is the power of the gemba at Toyota.”
4:05 Skills Transfer – Super Skill Line (Kamigo Plant)
1. Go back to fundamentals of manual work and pursue true jidoka (autonomation)
2. Creativity and progress led by a group of highly skilled workers
3. Develop highly skilled workers by using it as a skills transfer line
4. Build a production line that is gentler for senior-aged workers
4:15 Kawai challenged them to build a line “Going back to basics of manual work, so that people can work energetically until age 65.”
4:20 “How old are you?”
“I am 64 years old.”
“You are still young.”
4:23 The processes require high levels of skill to perform. They are doing many kaizens to make it possible to do the work with simple steps.
4:27 Plant Manager, Kamigo Plant, Tomihisa Saito
“All of the torque settings are pre-set.”
4:32 “If one washer is missing… you can’t pick up the bolts… This is how we assure quality.”
4:43 “This is very good because the line was built with creativity and ingenuity, using simple mechanisms (karakuri).”
4:49 This equipment uses templates to apply adhesives to parts of complex shapes
4:55 “You may have thought they were doing this detailed work by hand. In fact there is a template with grooves in the same shape as the part. The machine traces the groove.”
5:07 “We don’t need a big machine. By changing the template, we can make any shape. If you tried to recreate these detailed motions on an automatic machine it would be quite difficult.”
5:22 Achieving high quality in simple ways using kaizen and ingenuity
5:26 “If we make the process easy for senior-age workers to make good products, it will be even easier for younger workers. Then productivity will go up even more.”
5:34 “When a worker can assure the quality of their work without thinking about it, they can work more naturally in a rhythm. That is the great thing about this line.”
5:57 “Smile. Three, two, one.”
5:59 They are starting up a new forum to share and study examples of gemba kaizen between different work places
6:04 “Good evening everyone.”
6:06 If you think something is good, try it, even if your boss disapproves. We rely on you. I will take all responsibility. You take action freely.”
6:19 Senior Managing Officer, Mamoru Taguchi, “Let’s do it!” “Kanpai!”
6:26 “So many of my juniors are growing, so I am confident that they can do it.”
6:32 “Our company is supported by those people.”
6:34 “They say we are in a once-in-a-century time of change. We can win, no matter what problems or issues may come, because we are developing the next generation of people who will face these challenges. They will say, ‘We will do it, we will see this through no matter what.’”