A Surprisingly Simple Gemba Story

During a recent workshop, a customer asked me to share some inspiring Lean conversion stories. It was an impromptu request. I did my best but didn’t quite nail it. In hindsight, I think there is a difference between stories about Lean that inspire people who are just getting started or not quite convinced, and stories that inspire or infuse energy into the work of a Lean teacher or practitioner. The lesson for me is to have ready, for a variety of audiences, inspiring stories of how Lean helped people grow and organizations transform.

Thinking back on my career and the memorable moments that have stayed with me, these stories seem to have certain things in common: simplicity, surprise and gemba.

Here is one such story. It is from when I was starting out as consultant, working with a 50-person company. After a series of small successes in the shipping, electronics assembly, QC, sales and engineering departments, at last it was time to go downstairs to the pneumatics area. These men handled the heaviest parts. They had the most brawn and the most experience. They did great work in challenging conditions and were proud of it. Unlike the newer, better-lit and larger production area upstairs, the pneumatics team did custom, low-volume work, often facing down engineers whose drawings demanded the impossible. This team got the least support from management because the products upstairs were the future, and the team downstairs was so quietly competent. The mentality in pneumatics was, “We don’t have any big problems. You do your Lean upstairs.” The management team was okay with this, but I was not.

If any area required a consultant to approach with respect, humility and a low-key persistence, this was it. They had a spirit of “we’ve always done more with less” that was right for a startup but looked like “less than what is required to do the job without undue burden” in my eyes. We made a few small improvements here and there. They put tools and supplies at point of use, duplicated some needed items that they had been too frugal or too proud to ask for, built fixtures, redesigned their work area, and set up a cross training program. They appreciated being given the time and empowerment to work on improvements. But they remained deeply skeptical of one-piece flow and pull.

A few months into our engagement, this area was the only part of the company that was committed to working in batch. One day I asked them, “What is standing in your way to trying one-piece flow?” I learned that there was a test fixture. The company had only one. It was expensive. It was shared with the production team upstairs. When they needed to use it, they would build up a batch of finished products to test, and go upstairs to borrow it.

“What if we could get a tester for your area?” I persisted. “Would anything else stop you from trying one-piece flow?” That was ridiculous suggestion, they scoffed. They will never buy us our own tester.

“Why don’t we ask the assembly department upstairs if we can borrow it for a while to test the one-piece flow concept?” They made more doubtful noises.

Finally one of the team leaders stepped forward, “Sure, I’ll go ask.”

While we waited one of the senior mechanics told me that it was useless. There was no way they would move that tester. And in any case, we’ve got things as dialed in as they’re going to get down here, believe me.

Our messenger returned a few minutes later rolling the tester on a cart, wearing a strange expression on his face. “They said they never use it. We can keep the tester.” Everyone was stunned. There was a long silence. People must have been thinking, “Why did we never ask before?” and “What made us think we couldn’t have the tools we need?” or perhaps even “Well this is embarrassing.”

The team leader rolled the tester into the blank spot in flow line. As the others nodded in agreement he said, “Let’s give this a try.”

It was a simple matter of asking, “What if..?” What would it take to build one at a time? What tools, materials, supplies, layout and skills would we need to do this? Their team had been collecting these things little by little. They were stuck at the tester. In this case, getting their own tester was a simple matter of asking if they could borrow it. Due to design changes and the release of new models, the team upstairs no longer used this tester. This was a pleasant surprise. But not an uncommon one in the continuous improvement journey. When we don’t go see and don’t ask why, we are setting ourselves up for all kinds of surprises. Processes deteriorate. Assumptions become invalid. Things change.

The lesson of this story is that our perception of reality often differs from the actual reality on the gemba, and that by the simple action of going to see, we can often find surprising solutions to our problems.

What is your gemba story?

3 Comments

  1. Alex

    June 10, 2019 - 9:06 am

    This is what culture of continuous improvement looks like in my opinion. There is nothing for the leader or the coach to do when the culture allows the cross-functional conversation, experimentation, critical reasoning and so on. In lots of places the culture prevents that from happening. I would say, #untieyourhorses and your horses will run so much faster. Check out #libertarianlean in LinkedIn.

  2. Alice Conner

    June 12, 2019 - 10:51 am

    Great story Jon. Learned alot when you coached me and this was one lesson you infused.

  3. Rey Elbo

    June 13, 2019 - 9:34 pm

    The lesson keeps on repeating. If you don’t ask, the answer is always “NO.” And if they’re brave enough to say “NO” in your face, be humble and take “NO” to mean as “Next Opportunity.”