Taking a gemba walk is an important practice of going to the actual place where work is performed to better understand current conditions and how more value can be created with less waste and fewer barriers. Before going to the gemba (where the real work happens), a lean-thinking leader should meet with their team to clarify and review the purpose and gemba etiquette regarding respect for people. This will ensure all members of your team are on the same page and make the most of your gemba expedition.
Whether you work in education, government, law enforcement, or healthcare, your purpose is the same, that is, to serve. But who do you serve? Be clear-- it is your customer. It is important to do this reality check before going to the gemba. Ask your team, “who is your customer?” You may be surprised at some of their answers. In my own experience, I have found that team members do not always have the same idea of the customer that leaders do. Without knowing who the customer is, you cannot truly know your purpose because it is the customer that defines the reasons why we do what we do.
For example, imagine a professor that does not recognize a student as their customer, but instead has the roles in reverse, erroneously thinking the student is there to impress or prove something to them. Or an elected official that ignores their constituents as customers and only focuses on serving their big corporate donors. Or worst case, your underlying beliefs have so distorted your perception of your customer that they are unrecognizable, and you think they are someone to be feared rather than to be served. Tragically, we saw this play out with the three Louisville police officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove involved in the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor. Then we saw it again with Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd. And regrettably, we have witnessed it too many times before.
Who are police officers meant to serve? What does public safety mean in tense situations? Whose safety matters? What if the police officers had perceived Breonna Taylor and George Floyd as individuals who are valuable and who contribute to the same communities where the officers work? To ask questions from the perspective of those whom you are meant to serve is a form of humble inquiry. According to Edgar H. Schein, author of Humble Leadership, leading with humble inquiry involves committing to being helpful, bringing a great deal of honest curiosity, having a caring attitude, and a willingness to find out what is really on the customer’s mind.
Humble inquiry helps you understand value from your customer’s perspective. Value is defined as something the customer is willing to pay for and supportive activities or actions that advance the customer toward their final goals. An example of value to a student would be graduating on time. For a constituent, a public policy passed that benefits them. For a citizen, it may be police responding to a 911 call in a timely manner and without the threat of harm. And for a patient, timely effective care or not having to wait for hours without knowing why or effective follow up to test results. It is the responsibility of leaders to remove barriers so that employees can effectively and efficiently deliver value to their customers.
In addition to seeing your customers as central to your purpose, you should also perceive them as fellow problem-solvers that can help remove barriers to delivering value. This shows proper gemba etiquette and may be the highest form of showing respect for people, according to Jim Womack the author of Gemba Walks. Leaders cannot solve these problems alone; neither can employees. By showing mutual respect for each other’s knowledge, skills, perspective, and creativity, leaders and team members can come together on the gemba to figure out ways to create more value with less waste and fewer barriers. This type of collaboration makes the gemba a better place for stakeholders to learn and work jointly to better serve the customer.
During this season of reimagining how police, teachers, doctors, and politicians show up to serve us, we need to remember we are the customers. And if those who are duty-bound to serve us have forgotten their purpose and proper gemba etiquette, then we need to remind them. One way to do this is by showing up at the polls, which will have important consequences for politicians, policies, healthcare, schools, and police budgets. Make sure the voice of the customer is heard; get out to vote on November 3rd.
Connect with Christopher on:
Christopher D. Chapman is a Senior Lean Transformation Coach at Chapman Lean Enterprise (CLE) with extensive experience across a broad range of industries including manufacturing, healthcare, and higher education. Chris has over 20 years of management, quality engineering, and lean process improvement experience from Delphi, Kodak, Center for Excellence in Lean Enterprise (CELE) at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Association for Manufacturing Excellence Consortium, Purdue University, and CLE. Chris has developed and delivered Lean training workshops for over two thousand trainees, facilitated dozens of rapid improvement events (kaizens), trained and coached Lean Six Sigma Green Belt and Black Belt students, and provided consultation to over one-hundred local, national, and international businesses. He was also part of a team that helped develop The Environmental Professional's Guide to Lean and Six Sigma for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). After the killing of George Floyd, Chris felt compelled to use his problem-solving skill set to help combat social injustice and will soon release a Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Lean Value Stream Transformation toolkit for organizations and business leaders seeking to create an anti-racist culture.
Chris earned a BS degree with honors in Business Administration from Fayetteville State University, and a MS degree in Manufacturing Leadership from the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, Rochester Institute of Technology. He has written articles for leading trade publications such as Quality Progress, Institute of Industrial Engineers, Occupational Hazards, and The Lean Post (Lean Enterprise Institute).