Humility at the Gemba

I recall visiting the NUMMI plant in Fremont California, the joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, prior to its closing. Two colleagues and I had the privilege of receiving a private tour. The general manager for each process within the plant gave us a tour through their area of responsibility and we finished by meeting with the President of NUMMI for about an hour. I asked him what he does when he goes out to the shop floor (gemba). Part of his answer was "I keep my eyes low and I pick up trash." He was of course describing humility.

I also had the privilege of working closely with one of the best, if not the best, and most humble leaders that I know. Gaurdie Banister was the President and CEO of Aera Energy LLC. Gaurdie took the time to acknowledge everybody he passed in the hallway, he made time to talk to anybody who wanted to talk to him, he asked for and genuinely wanted people's opinions and ideas, he was a very strong advocate of inclusion and diversity, and he spent a lot of time at the gemba. I once asked him what he thought was the most important thing that leaders should be doing at the gemba and he said there were two things; first, make sure that people are safe. Anybody who knows Gaurdie won't be surprised by that answer. Secondly, always be teachable. He was of course describing humility.

Most of us are likely familiar with Fujio Cho, Toyota’s Chairman of the Board  from June 2006 to June 2013 and currently Honorary Chairman. His admonition to "Go see, ask why, and show respect" is memorable. Mr. Cho was also, of course, describing humility. The antithesis of Mr. Cho's admonition would be to "sit in your office, tell people what to do, and make sure they know that you are the boss!"

Humility is an observable behavior. The examples given above describe some of the behaviors of humble leaders, but they just scratch the surface.  Think about how you show up at the gemba, do you demonstrate genuine humility?  Has your leadership team taken the time to discuss ideal leadership behaviors?  Is humility one of those behaviors?  If yes, how does humility show up in your organization?  What are the observable behaviors I would look for as I walked through and observed the leaders at your gemba?

So, get your boots on, go to the gemba with genuine humility, be teachable, and see what you can learn today.

Three Types of Leadership Gemba Visits

In my last blog, Senior Leaders at the Gemba, I encouraged leaders who are somewhat uncomfortable with going to the gemba to simply take the opportunity to visit the gemba and listen to people.  It’s a great opportunity to demonstrate humility, learn more about the operations, discover some of the problems that the team members encounter in their work day, build relationships, earn the trust of the team members, and be a learner – not a knower.  Once you are comfortable with going to the gemba, I would recommend that you establish more structured processes for your gemba visits.  In my experience, there are basically three types of gemba visits:  

1.            Leadership Gemba Visits – These are similar to what I discussed in the first article.  The focus is on the culture, developing trust, learning more about the operations, and finding ways to improve the working conditions of the team members.  These gemba visits are typically conducted by Managers and Executives (individually or in pairs).  They don’t usually have an agenda or follow a prescribed process.  The leader simply goes to the gemba to engage with the team members in a meaningful way and searches for opportunities to make their work less frustrating and more fulfilling. 

2.            Leader Standard Work Gemba Walks – These gemba walks typically have an agenda or a theme and occur on a regular cadence.  These are structured and can be done individually or in groups.  Many management teams have standard processes for visiting team huddles, checking hour-by-hour charts, doing 5-S audits, or doing safety observations.  Others visit the gemba with a specific theme in mind for the walk such as reviewing autonomous maintenance practices, learning about kaizen activities, discussing safety procedures, reviewing visual management practices, doing Toyota kata coaching, using Kamishibai cards, etc.  These gemba walks often have standard work associated with them and are a very important part of the leaders’ day.

3.            Problem Solving Gemba Visits – Typically, the purpose of a problem solving gemba visit is to go to the source of a problem in order to observe it first-hand, talk to those closest to the problem, and determine if countermeasures are needed while working to determine the root cause of the problem.  This is also a great opportunity for leaders to talk to team members about the problem solving process and root cause analysis.

While there are many different ways that leaders practice gemba walks, the most essential point is that leaders should be spending a relatively considerable amount of their time at the gemba.  Typically, in cultures where the leaders routinely visit the gemba there are fewer meetings, less rework associated with ineffective countermeasures, a higher level of team member engagement, and better business results.  So, genchi genbutsu – in other words, get your boots on and “go see for yourself” what’s going on at your gemba.

Senior Leaders at the Gemba

I've had the opportunity to coach some very senior level executives and CEO's both within my prior company of 37 years (I just recently retired) and in other organizations. A considerable amount of that coaching took place during Gemba walks and Gemba reflections. Some leaders are uncomfortable with the concept of going to the Gemba at first because they feel out of their element, out of their comfort zone.

Perhaps you are a leader (not necessarily a senior leader) and you have experienced these same uncomfortable feelings, and maybe it keeps you from going to the Gemba even though you know you should be spending more time there. If this describes you, or if you just want to be more effective at Gemba walks, please consider the following approach which might help you to feel much more comfortable and even leave you looking forward to your next Gemba experience.

Think about your time at the Gemba as an opportunity to learn more about the front line operations of your business, to explore what types of experiments are underway, to hear about the problems people are working on, to build relationships, to see what kind of improvements people are making in the business, and to thank people for their hard work and their dedication to the success of the organization. There's no pressure on you to know all the answers, or to follow a prescriptive process. All you need to do is listen, not just listen but really listen, be a learner (not a knower), show genuine interest in people and their work, and start to build relationships.

You need to be thoughtful, especially if your people aren't accustomed to seeing you in their work area, about how you ask questions and what comments you make. How will your presence, your comments, and your questions be received, will they come across as you having a genuine interest in learning more about their work or will it sound like you are giving them a test, or asking "gotcha" questions, or trying to show them how smart you are? Do you come across as genuinely caring about them as a person or do you come across as being insincere and just going through the paces so you can check the box?

After you have built relationships with the front line (or wherever Gemba is for you) and earned the trust of the people there, you can work towards more standardized and systematic approaches for your Gemba walks.

So, go to the Gemba, learn more about your operations, build relationships, earn their trust, find ways to remove their frustrations and make their work more fulfilling, be present, be respectful, and really listen!