Reinvent Management: Go to the Gemba

By Sanjiv Augustine

From Lean management, we’ve heard the exhortation to, “go to the gemba.”

Getting management to perform a gemba walk is gaining popularity in agile circles, and of course, has been a key Lean technique for decades.  As this excellent article points out, the gemba walk is not strolling around and glad handing people.

How important is it to connect management with the gemba, or “real place” where work is done?

To fully appreciate the answer consider the alternative from the world of auto manufacturing.  For years, executives in Detroit insulated themselves from the shop floor – their gemba. From theSeattle Times:

For generations, the 14th floor of the General Motors Corp. headquarters, with its thick carpets, mahogany walls and electronically controlled glass doors, has been the ultimate symbol of power at the world’s largest company. Access was by invitation only.

Top executives were sealed off from the rest of the GM work force. Chauffeured into the basement garage, GM’s leaders were whisked by private elevator to the 14th floor’s executive row, where their meals were catered in a private dining room.

The 14th floor was an essential part of the corporate culture that shaped GM – for better, and recently for worse – for more than half a century. Now, as GM’s board and a new team of managers struggle to make the company more competitive, they are beginning by destroying the mystique of the fabled executive floor, in an effort to change a corporate culture marked by insularity and inbred management.

The results, as we American taxpayers know too well, were disastrously painful, culminating in the implosion and subsequent auto bailout in 2008.  So, how did Detroit’s new ‘C’ suite go about fixing their massive mess and get out of bankruptcy?

Sergio Marchionne, the CEO of Fiat and Chrysler took several bold steps to turn Chrysler around.  One of them was to forgo the remote chairman’s office for the shop floor.  The old office is now an empty “tourist trap.”

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