If You Want to Know, Go to the Source

By R. Keith Mobley, Principal SME, Life Cycle Engineering

Beginning with the introduction of so-called Japanese management philosophies, especially the Toyota Production System (later called Lean), there is a growing focus on Gemba walks. Almost without exception, Lean consultants coach plant leadership to go to Gemba, meaning to periodically spend time on the factory floor. Recently, change management consultants have joined the parade of go–to-Gemba advocates. As a result, more and more organizations have formal, scheduled Gemba walks where leaders, from the CEO through the frontline supervisors, regularly spend time on the floor. Sounds like a great idea, right?

As one indoctrinated early in the management by walking around philosophy, I am an absolute advocate of staying in constant contact with the factory floor or whatever your area of responsibility. However, there are right and wrong ways to do this. The original purpose of management by walking around was to ensure that the entire workforce understands the vision, goals and objectives of the organization and follows them on the factory floor. Traditional communication, no matter how effective, is not enough to ensure understanding, agreement or adherence. It must be augmented and reinforced by everyone in the management group—everyone.

Management by walking around is also a means to understand the truth of what is happening within the organization. Traditional organizational communications have proven to be insufficient. Reports, verbal or written, convey a filtered version of true events. Vision, goals, objectives and other information developed by executive leadership morph as the organization deploys them to the workforce. In most cases, this is inadvertent and simply interpretations of the intervening levels of management as part of the deployment. The final message to those who must implement these directives can become badly skewed. The opposite also occurs. As events at the working level, e.g. factory floor or within functional areas, pass up the communications ladder, each level will interpret and pass on a filtered version of events. Too often the result is that problems become non-problems or bad decisions are made based on the skewed information. Management by walking around was born because forward-looking executives adopted a habit of bypassing, or at least augmenting, traditional communications and going directly to the source.

Unfortunately, with the mad rush to go to Gemba too many have lost sight of the true intent of spending time at the working level of functions and on the factory floor. A few years ago I observed a good example of the wrong way to use management time on the factory floor. The general manager in this aerospace manufacturing company and his leadership team conducted a boardwalk every day precisely at 8 a.m. They stopped at each manufacturing station where area workers assembled at their process control boards. At each stop, the leadership team would review the board and berate the team for any deficiencies found. Without exception, the workforce looked forward to the daily boardwalks with abject dread. Morale and performance sank lower and lower.

A more common failure in the use of management by walking around is staged visits where executives and other managers visit their area of responsibility and the factory floor with a canned speech or pre-programmed series of questions. This becomes simply a check-the-box exercise for both the manager and the workforce.

To be truly effective, Gemba must be true to its intended purpose—to listen and learn. The walk and any resultant conversations with employees must be genuine and as equals. If you ask for input, listen to the response, ask for clarification to ensure understanding, make notes of it and then follow through. There is nothing worse than a promise not fulfilled. If you cannot be genuine, it is better to rely on other means of communication than to be disingenuous and prove it to everyone.

I encourage you to develop the habit of spending quality time with your direct reports, as well as the factory floor. Learn to listen carefully to them and to understand their view of how the company is doing and factors that limit performance. This trait was invaluable to me over my career. The knowledge gained and the support freely given by the workforce created the foundation for solid business decisions that ensured success and sustainability.

“If You Want to Know, Go to the Source."

Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s letter. Hopefully, it has raised a few thoughts that will help you take the next step in your journey to excellence. I welcome your feedback and am happy to respond to specific questions. You can reach me at [email protected].

Best regards,
R. Keith Mobley
Principal, Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.

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Keith Mobley has earned an international reputation as one of the premier consultants in the fields of plant performance optimization, reliability engineering, predictive maintenance, and effective management. He has more than 35 years of direct experience in corporate management, process design and troubleshooting. For the past 16 years, he has helped hundreds of clients worldwide achieve and sustain world-class performance. Keith can be reached at [email protected].

© Life Cycle Engineering, Inc.


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