How Important Is Physical Presence on the Gemba?

By Jon Miller Updated on September 12th, 2021

Nearly thirty years ago when I first ventured into the field of kaizen, continuous improvement, and what’s come to be known as lean management, there was no commercial internet. This meant that if you wanted to talk to someone, you had to either make a telephone call or make a journey to the proximity of that person. My first job in the field was as a Japanese-English interpreter for ex-Toyota group consultants. My option was to fly to whatever gemba they would be visiting each week. The toughest part of this was the travel. After some months of this, and watching innovations like FTP, e-mail, and homepages emerge, I wondered. What would it take, from a telecoms and IT standpoint, to eliminate the travel part of my job?

The idea got as far as having a remote interpreter provide language services via internet phone that the Japanese consultant would access on a wireless headset. Ten-plus hours of wireless per day would have been expensive. Voice over IP was not quite a thing. It’s questionable whether the audio setup would have worked in a noisy machine shop. And there were so many cases where the words alone meant almost nothing without the visual context. Even grainy video would have been a must, yet most businesses didn’t have wireless across their facilities. So it was not to be, and my travel-based career continued for a couple of decades more.

Launching a Consultancy in the Age of Zoom

Today, we are meeting, touring, observing, collaborating, consulting, coaching, and even delivering medical advice by videoconference. Some would say we’re doing too much of this and are eager to do these things face to face. Others appreciate the freedom from commuting. A recent Bloomberg article cited research that suggests that business travel may never go back to the 2019 levels. More than 80% of large businesses surveyed plan to spend 20% to 40% less. The cost and disruption of travel is hard to justify when they’ve found ways to get work done without it. In addition to savings in workers’ commute time and company cost savings, reduced travel makes it easier to meet environmental and sustainability targets.

These developments make me wonder, what would be different launching a consulting business now? The technology is there to do perhaps 95% of what’s necessary without travel. This would save clients 15% to 20% of the cost of a typical consultancy by eliminating long-distance travel. By not losing time to travel, a virtual-remote consultancy could support more clients. Eliminating the travel overhead might do away with the artificial five-day kaizen events. Five days is a batch, an economic order quantity to account for travel-related setup time. Even if five-day events persisted, these would be more productive. Without travel, the consultant, coach, or instructor is fresher on Mondays and feels no pressure to end Fridays early to catch a flight.

The Age of Virtual Presence on the Gemba

In fact, many organizations are doing online training, virtual gemba walks, remote team meetings, and workshops of all sorts. As with any new practice, there are struggles to adapt. It’s important to help people avoid zoom fatigue. But on the whole, I believe removing the travel-driven batching of work is a good thing. Instead of overstuffed off-site meeting agendas, “Because it’s rare that we can get everyone in the same room,” it’s possible to meet virtually in more frequent, smaller, focused sessions.

There are many options that we didn’t explore when travel was an easy option. Now that the paradigm has been broken, it frees us to think differently about how we live and work. Cameras mounted on drones fly through construction sites, factories, perhaps even hospitals soon. The possibilities of VR goggles are just beginning to be explored. These tools allow physicians, family members, or other remote stakeholders easier access to the people and processes they value.

How Important Is Physical Presence on the Gemba?

But there is a deeply-held bias within lean management for being onsite, at the scene. One of the keys to successful management and improvement is to go to the gemba, work with the actual product, and get the facts. This is based on the belief that we can gain insight from directly observing processes that we can’t get just from data or second-hand accounts. This applies to any place of work where we attempt to add value. As technologies enable us to get our work done without going onsite, this makes me wonder, how important is physical presence on the gemba?

There’s a slippery slope from video conferencing to asynchronous review of video footage to just looking at old, decontextualized data. We may find ourselves lulled into trusting reports that don’t reflect the reality we could observe if we were on the gemba. If so, we may see a reversal of the current trend and more “go see” travel in a few years. No doubt there is a need for both. In fact, we’ve been finding ways to combine physical and virtual for decades. For example, during a SMED workshop, the team may record or pre-record the equipment changeover observation. They view and analyze this, redesign the process, run and observe it again. Even when we are on-site, the use of video allows us to meet as a team and “remotely observe” at a later time.

Fujio Cho, a former senior executive at the company, once explained what he expected from leaders at Toyota as “Go see, ask why, show respect.” The very first word is “go.” Not “Log in from where you are and see.” Perhaps this word is a relic from a past technological age. But perhaps it’s a recognition that simply showing up is a prerequisite to asking questions and showing respect for those who do the work.

  1. Florian Laboulle

    September 13, 2021 - 12:12 pm

    It reminds me of a 5S assessment that the corporate carried out in my company. One of the reviewers was so focused on one aspect of the machine, with blinders on, that he didn’t see the puddle of oil he was walking in.
    If we look at the workshop through a screen, we only see what the interlocutor shows us with the camera, where is the added value of the “gemba walk” in this case?
    I sincerely believe that you have to go out into the field as much as possible to see the whole process. The “go and see” comes from there.

  2. Sofia Machado

    October 6, 2021 - 12:59 pm

    This is such a relevant topic now with the increasing use of Zoom and other videoconferencing platforms. It is very convenient to have the option to do a gemba walk virtually, especially when it would require an extensive amount of traveling. However, I feel that physically being there would be a much more beneficial experience. You cannot get the full picture of what is going on virtually. Actually being able to walk through a facility, see the processes, and work hands-on with the products is something that cannot be replaced by a Zoom call. Having the option for someone who may not be able to travel is great, but I do not think it should replace the in-person gemba.

  3. Pedro Monteiro

    October 26, 2021 - 9:37 am

    If a gemba walk was just ‘go and see’, ‘login and see’ could work in some cases.
    But a gemba walk is much more than that. Very different from MBWA (Managing By Walking Around), it has its most important part in “ask why, show respect”!
    Gemba walks are physical and never virtual.

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