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High-Performance Supply Chains Begin With The Gemba

As senior business leaders, it’s easy to slip into thinking that our role is to provide answers to the problems facing the company. And while coming up with solutions is a critical element of good leadership, that doesn’t mean that you’re the one who always has the answers.

Plus, I’ve found that searching for solutions right off the bat is premature — more often than not, the problems crossing my desk (or more realistically, my Zoom room) are really just symptoms of other, more significant issues. So, a key part of my job is to ask the right questions to discover the root cause of issues, then leverage the skills and knowledge of my team to find the most effective way to tackle them.

How do I find the root cause? By embracing the Gemba walk.

What is Gemba?

Strictly speaking, Gemba is a Japanese word meaning “the actual place.” As a business concept in Lean management, it’s used to refer to the place where the work is done and value is created. In my world, the manufacturing world, a Gemba walk means touring the “line” where production is done or where the work happens. At a high level, the intent of a Gemba walk is to help management understand work processes and identify areas that can be improved.

In contract manufacturing, or pretty much any place where production is outsourced, there are two critical flows to monitor or lines to walk — 1) the flow of information and 2) the flow of material. Leaders in both large and small organizations struggle with monitoring these two flows, often due to inadequate visibility into where the work happens. Whenever this is the case, either in my organization or in the organizations of leaders I speak to, I’m drawn back to the concept of Gemba, and Gemba walks.

Gemba Walks

A Gemba walk is how, as an executive, you get to the ground truth of your operations and build strong relationships with the people that create value for your company. It’s the best way to gain visibility into the friction points adversely affecting the information and material flows in your production process. That understanding comes from the three interdependent elements of a Gemba walk:

  1. Respect
  2. Observation
  3. Communication

Respect Your Team’s Expertise

The most crucial element of every Gemba walk is respect. A Gemba walk is about building relationships and collaborating with the team on the ground to improve your operations. In order to get an accurate picture of the Gemba, leaders must be humble and respect the expertise and knowledge of their employees and vice versa. Both management and folks on the line have a unique vantage point that can be used to solve critical efficiency issues, and it all starts with mutual respect.

Observe, Don’t Critique

When management shows up only to observe — and neither pass judgment nor review results — employees are more forthcoming about the problems they face and the points of friction in their work. This is where the second element, observation, comes in. Your job as the leader following the concept of a Gemba walk is to observe how work is being done and gather information so you can understand and identify wasteful activities in work processes. You aren’t there to offer feedback, analysis, or solutions.

Communicate What’s Happening, and Why

Good communication is the final element, and it applies before, during, and after every Gemba walk. First, you notify your team ahead of time when the walk will occur and explain that the Gemba walk is a key part of the practice of continuous improvement. Next, during the walk, you speak with — but mostly listen to — the employees doing the production work to get the context and details about how well processes are or are not functioning.

After the walk, when you have a more comprehensive understanding of processes and pain points within them, it’s time to meet with stakeholders to analyze the identified issues and develop solutions. But before any corrective actions are taken, it’s critical to give your team the respect they deserve and inform them about the forthcoming changes before you start implementing them.

To Strengthen Supply Chains, Embrace Gemba

The realities of a global supply chain — where disruptions are increasingly common — dictate that leaders build resiliency and agility into their sourcing in order to remain competitive. Generally, this means increasing the geographic diversity of your suppliers. But finding and adding vendors is no simple task, and evolving your supply chain while maintaining production levels and quality standards is incredibly challenging.

This need for more diverse supply chains capable of delivering quality components has only increased the importance of understanding what’s happening at “the actual place” (Gemba). Now more than ever, it’s critical that Supply Chain leaders are driving organizational efficiencies and improving the flow of information. As I see it, that leaves leadership with two options to leverage the power of Gemba and build more resilient and agile supply chains:

  1. Spend time every year and do a Gemba walk at every vendor facility
  2. Work with a partner that: understands the importance of performing Gemba walks, focuses on quality, and provides visibility into your supply chain

Gemba Evolved

During my time working for Ford, I learned the value of Gemba walks in managing not just tier 1, but also tier 2 and 3 suppliers. That experience informed the principles and vision I developed for our company. We are ostensibly a technology company, but our entire global team embraces Gemba walks at our partner facilities to drive exceptional results for our customers. The combination of technology + robust business processes + boots on the ground is foundational to our customer’s success.

The past couple of years has changed the way we all work for the better. Companies learned how to balance remote and co-located operations through the power of technology.

It’s time we do the same with the supply chain. And I believe building the supply chain of the future, one that’s resilient and agile, requires actualizing the value of Gemba in new ways through the power of technology.