The Gemba is the workplace, the place where the actual work is done, where components are assembled, pressings stamped out, and paperwork processed. It is only by visiting the Gemba that you can truly discover what is actually going on within your company.
Too many managers and business owners assume that what is happening in their business is as written in their procedures and ways of working, they assume that what people do is what is written in their job descriptions. They assume an awful lot and are blind to reality and the amount of waste that is going on within their business.
It is only by going to the workplace that you can truly understand your processes and find out what is really going on within your business. Taichii Ohno’s practice with new students was to take them to the shop floor and make them stand within a chalk circle and watch what was going on for many hours so that they saw reality, not a book full of flow charts and descriptions.
I will give you an example of the power of visiting the Gemba with regard to solving problems, a few years back I worked with a company that was having major delivery and quality problems. In this example I will concentrate on the quality problems that they were experiencing.
The Customer was their only Customer, the factory having been set up purely to assemble and deliver product “Just In Time”, only being given a few hours notice of which specific variant was required for which time during the day. The factory employed around 60 people, of which over 50 were direct employees working on the production lines. Most of the assembly was around welded assemblies that were supplied by a larger part of the same group, these assemblies came in a handful of variants that were then assembled with a variety of components to give a total of around two dozen total variants.
The relationship between the company and the Customer was at best “Strained”, the customer was threatening to pull the business and give it to another supplier and the performance of this specific location was putting the business from other plants in the same company in jeopardy also.
Due to the quality problems experienced by the Customer the company was now employing an additional 6 staff that 100% inspected all finished products and reworked as required as well as an additional engineer whose job was to collate the data from the rework to pinpoint the causes of failure.
Most (if not all) of the failures were due to welding issues with the initial assembly supplied by another part of the group, due to this, this other company had 3 on site inspectors within the company conducting goods inward inspection on incoming products as well as also employing an additional 6 staff in their welding plant to conduct inspection and welding rework.
The reject levels to the customer had dropped significantly, but despite there being three 100% inspections of products, problems still surfaced occasionally at the customer and of course the expense of employing some 15 additional staff for inspection and rework. This had been ongoing now for over 4 months!
The data pointed very conclusively to the fact that the problems originated from the supplier that welded the main assemblies for the products so it was decided to visit the company to find where the issues were.
The supplier was part of the same group and an order of magnitude greater in size than the company that was experiencing the problems, the welded assemblies made up only a fraction of the output from this supplier.
The assemblies were assembled in a fairly modern factory, utilizing fixtures that were designed to hold individual components that were then welded within a number of dedicated robotic cells. We stood in the center of the working area and watched the work being done.
We observed operators hammering components into fixtures as they did not fit, we saw other operators attempting to wedge components in place with off cuts of wood and pieces of cardboard to hold them securely and still others trying to balance components in place for the robot to weld as there was no way to hold them. It was horrifying to watch!
We met with the Engineer and the Supervisor responsible for the area, they had spent months having components measured internally and at external suppliers, finding no significant dimensional issues with them and were at a loss as to what the problems were! Asked what they had seen on the shop floor they replied that the shop floor was state of the art with fixtures and gauges that were not due for calibration for at least six months so there should be no problems there!!! The operators on the shop floor were unaware of the fact that they had a dedicated engineer as they had never seen him and the supervisor only came at the end of the day to check the numbers!
The operators were doing the best they could with fixtures that were loose and damaged, they had submitted repair tickets to maintenance but with little response, they continued with what they were doing as they were trying to help the company to achieve the numbers as this was very important!
It took us two hours to repair each and every fixture that had problems, each and every welding problem was 100% eliminated! The Engineer’s desk is now located in the middle of the manufacturing cell, as are the other engineers within the company also. This visit was very embarresing for the people involved as the problems were so obvious!
This may be an extreme case, but it is not isolated, I have seen so many operators living with problems with fixtures, supplied products and other issues that they overcome using their own ingenuity thinking that they are doing the right thing and supporting the company, unaware that they are causing problems further downstream.
It is only be going to the workplace that you can observe these problems and deviations from the expected and agreed ways of working. Improvement projects and investigations that rely on the procedures and other written descriptions are doomed to failure.
It is everyone’s job to go to the Gemba and just spend an hour or two just observing what really happens, see the deviations from what should happen, observe the true waste in the system. It is surprising how much can be saved and corrected by just standing there and quietly watching, just asking relevant questions when required; “why are you doing that?” “Is it always that way?” “Does it always take this long?” and so on.
Never assume what happens, go to the gemba and observe!