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Reading The Story of The Gemba

Aug 11, 2014 | Posted by Matt Elson


One early lesson on my learning journey with the Toyota Production System was the concept of developing ”kaizen eyes”; the ability to see deeply and apply improvements to any process.  My mentor said that we have to learn how to “read” the “story” of the shop floor.  In this article, we explore the concept of applying the Toyota Production System (TPS) to non-automotive environments to help us practice this skill.

As you will see, it is a framework for improving the safety, quality, quantity and cost through developing people’s ability to see deeply, make improvements and solve problems.

How To Read The “Story”:

One of the concepts within the Toyota Production System (TPS)  thinking is “abnormality sensitivity” for leadership.  This is a critical skill because it is the first step in problem solving…we have to be aware that a problem is occurring in the first place!

What is a problem?  A problem can be simply defined to be any situation where the actual condition doesn’t equal the standard, or when the current condition doesn’t equal the target condition.  That’s a pretty broad definition on purpose…leadership’s primary role is to be “scanning” their gemba (this can be an actual shop floor, a hospital ward, an administrative center, grocery store check out, whatever…the place where all the action is happening!).  Various tools and techniques can be used to reduce the discovery lag and the activity lag in problem detection (check out our TPS Leadership series for more specific details on these techniques).

If these things are so important, then why are they lacking in so many places and businesses?  If you take a look around you in your day-to-day life, you will see that we’ve been dealing with these problems for so long, we don’t even react to them anymore.  What’s wrong with these pictures?

Identify Problems and Compare to Target Condition:

I know it’s Waiting!hard to tell in the picture, but at least half of all the lanes were NOT opened and being staffed.

What is the standard?  Is this a “target” condition?

If it’s not, where is management to step in and help out?  In other words, what is the system that gives the team members a chance to call for help and what does management do when they get that call?

Do they jump on an additional cash register, or do they help out with the existing aisles (bagging, etc.)?


Still waiting!!

Same goes for this one…half of the aisles are closed and customers are creating their own winding queues to make a path for shoppers that are still shopping!!  (The REALLY frustrating thing is that there is a problem notification tool, an andon, in place at this store at each aisle, but it’s NOT used!!)

When did this become “normal”?

Is this how companies reduce costs to “compete”?

I can’t imagine anyone thinks that this is great customer service.



Practice, Practice, Practice:

To develop kaizen eyes, you have to constantly practice.  Just like anything else in your life, you need experience and practice to improve.  Compare what you observe to the target condition.  Don’t have a target condition?  Don’t worry…just use your common sense in situations and use that as a starting point.  What can you see in terms of abnormality to standard?

Avalanche of Kanban

    • In this case, customer demand has outstripped the process capacity.  Why?

Are there demand fluctuations?

Is there a problem with the process standards (how often is this checked/replenished)?

Have people been trained on their standardized work properly?

Is there an easy way to make this abnormality visible?



Cost of Inventory

Why is so much inventory required?  Is the lead-time for inventory replenishment too high?

Is there a demand miss-match?

Is there over-production here?  (i.e. will some of the food go bad before it is consumed? over-budget on groceries?)

Is there a problem in the process? (i.e. how often is inventory replenished?)



Too Much Inventory

How many fittings are required at once?  (i.e. only one can be installed per person at a time!)

Why can’t the process deliver the fittings as needed?  (i.e. one-by-one)

What is the cost of the extra inventory?

What problems and waste are created when ordering, moving and storing this extra inventory?

Does management view this as a problem?



Poor Quality

Is this a good quality condition, in terms of fit, form or function?  (Note the welding point and paint over-spray)

What caused the weld point bubble & point?

What caused the paint over-spray?

How can we apply the 4 M’s of problem solving to determine the root cause (huMan, Machine, Materials, Method)?

Why were the defects passed by the manufacturing process?



By creating abnormality sensitivity in leadership, setting up a support structure and then having management actually MANAGE the operations, this kind of thing is quite easily fixed.  The question is:  Why hasn’t it been?

BUT, beware!  Once you start thinking and “seeing” things with “kaizen eyes”, you can’t go back to “normal”…you see waste and problems everywhere!

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