Management Focus, Gemba And… Rats In The Attic

In our last Blog, we talked about a survey that showed that 46% of outsourcing buyers were satisfied with cost savings,  26% were satisfied with transformation efforts and just 11% were satisfied with meeting innovation goals.  We went on to talk about other studies that found that Six Sigma, Lean, Kaisen and other improvement project methodologies also barely achieve a 50% success rate. The conclusion was that there are two factors that make it difficult for projects to achieve all of their goals. The first is that many projects are managed by individuals who have other responsibilities, and eventually lose their focus on a project. The second is that cost savings (or at least early evidence of cost savings) happen earlier than evidence of transformation, and evidence of innovation happens even later;
since we’re all constantly being distracted, more of your projects supporters are working with you on cost, fewer are still around for transformation, and almost all of your supporters have dropped off (for a variety of reasons) by the time you get around to innovation goals.

Today, let’s look at another management process, Kaisen… an early term created in Japan for what would evolve into “Lean” management. This methodology finds small inefficiencies, things that don’t need to be done or that the client doesn’t value, and eliminates them. Kaisen also introduced another term, Gemba. Gemba is the center, the origin, the “real place” or the “scene of the crime” in Japanese culture. This is where all or most of these problems arise from. It could be a misunderstanding of client needs, it might
be a poorly designed work process, it could be a good process with confusing training, or it might even be a group of employees with little motivation. It could be almost anything, but if you don’t get to the Gemba you only solve part of the problem and only receive a part of the potential benefits. In Japan, where these ideas originated, there is more of an effort to get to the Gemba. Attempts to transfer Japanese management techniques to the US have always been rather disappointing.  Something in US and European corporate culture limits the results of Kaizen.

That something may be that the US and Europe want a faster return on investments, and tend towards shorter time frames for investment and projects. Andrew Scotchmer, an author of Kaizen Books and the Founder of a Kaizen consultancy, wrote an interesting article about a US variation of Kaizen. This process is called the Kaizen Blitz. This is Kaizen done very quickly and broadly, the perfect process for cultures that are very bad at waiting for results. The only problem is, as Andrew Mr. Scotchmer points out, that it often doesn’t work. By skipping important steps to deliver quick results,
you never get to the Gemba, and the results are very superficial. Mere symptoms, not underlying causes, become the only targets.

Let’s take a look at a simple example. Let’s say that you buy a house out in the country. In that house, you have all the communications (internet, phone, cable, satellite, etc.) running through a single closet in your attic. After you’re in your house for a few months you start having problems. The cable stops working, the internet starts having problems, the phone has static.  You then look in the closet and see that many of the cables have been gnawed on, and the copper wires inside of these cables are now exposed and are touching each other. Success, you’ve found the problem! You wrap the cables in electrical tape, close the closet, and you’re done! No? Well, this is Kaizen Blitz… or at least poorly executed Kaizen Blitz. A better solution would be to ask yourself what gnawed the cables? Hmmm… looks like rats. So, you go a step further and after the cables are taped, you put out some traps to take care of the rats. Finished? No. You’re closer to the Gemba, but you’re not there yet. You need to ask yourself, “Why are rats in this closet, and how did they get  there?” Now you look for the holes that the rats made, and plug them. You also notice that someone stored flour and other groceries in the closet. That’s the Gemba, the real cause of your problem. You need to fix this if you are going to permanently solve your problem.

The lesson for today is that when you solve a problem, there is often a larger and more important problem lying just beyond the one you just solved. These deeper issues, the core of your problem, the Gemba, is what you need to find to get the full benefit of your problem solving. If you stop short of this goal, you may only get a small benefit and miss the true payoff of performance improvement. There are constant pressures to complete projects faster than makes sense. It’s hard to resist these pressures, but if you approach a project with a realistic timeline you are far more likely to find the Gemba and achieve far
more benefits. And that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

This entry was posted in Best Practices, Decision Making, Delivering Services, Improvement, Continuous or Not, Learning and Development, Unique Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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