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The Gemba-Kaizen Management Approach Published: Sunday, January 15, 2006 By: Ramón L. Rivera

During the last fifteen (15) years, our team has been researching and practicing the Gemba-Kaizen approach to management in many organizations. This management philosophy and methodology originated in Japan and was further developed in the western world, particularly during the last ten (10) years. It has created a revolution in the way work and improvement activities are organized and managed in organizations. The philosophy assumes that our way of life—be it, our home life, our social life, or our working life—, should be the focus of constant improvement efforts.

Kaizen comes from the Japanese word meaning ‘improvement’. The character ‘kai’ means “to change”, “to modify”, or “to convert”. The character ‘zen’ means “good”, “right” or “virtue”. Kaizen involves looking at the current state of a process, separating value-added from waste and “making it right” by using Lean principles to leaving out the waste and rebuilding a better process. The world implies continuous improvement that involves everyone in the organization and entails little expense.

Gemba is a Japanese world meaning “real place”, where the real action takes place. In business, gemba is where the value-adding activities to satisfy the customer are carried out. In the manufacturing industry, there are three major activities directly related to wealth creation: Developing, Producing, and selling products. In the service sectors, gemba is where customers come into contact with the services offered.

Applied to any workplace Gemba-Kaizen means continuing improvement involving everyone - managers and workers alike. Kaizen is a culture of sustained continuous improvement focusing on eliminating waste in all systems and processes of an organization. The Kaizen strategy begins and ends with people. With Kaizen, an involved leadership guides people to continuously improve their ability to meet expectations of high quality, low cost, and customer delight.

Gemba-Kaizen is about process-oriented thinking, since process must be improved before we get improved results. Further, Kaizen is people-oriented and is directed at people’s efforts. Although kaizen improvements are small and incremental, the process brings about dramatic results over time. Kaizen acts on small-scale opportunities that are easier and faster. The risks are low because they generally have limited effect. However, the accumulated effect is often greater than a single large improvement.

In the field of process improvement, manager’s first priority should be to go to gemba and observe. Gemba is your teacher. When you go to gemba, what you see is the real data. The report from gemba you read sitting at your desk is merely secondary information. Traditional managers prefer their desk as their workplace; wish to distance themselves from the events taking place in gemba. Those managers come in contact with reality only through their daily, weekly, or even monthly reports, or other meetings.

Gemba-Kaizen and Innovation are two necessary but distinct strategies that complement each other. Innovation is key to business success for it implies the creation of new products or processes by mean of dramatic changes in the wake of technological breakthroughs. Large scale improvement is attractive and important, for it promises quantum jumps in productivity, quality and effectiveness. However, it is more difficult to implement for the risks and difficulties increase with the scale of change.

The innovation strategy is supposed to bring about progress in a staircase progression. On the other hand, the Kaizen strategy brings about gradual progress. The actual progress achieved through innovations will generally follow a declining trend. This happens because a system, once it has been installed as a result of innovation, is subject to steady deterioration unless continuing efforts are made first to maintain it and then to improve on it. When such effort is lacking, decline is inevitable. Thus, whenever an innovation is achieved, it must be followed by series of Kaizen efforts to maintain and improve it.

Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo developed the concept of “kaizen Blitz” at Toyota. The word ‘blitz’ comes from German and means ‘lightning’. Paired with kaizen, it means ‘lightning fast improvement’. The Blitz or Event is a focused, intense, short-term project to improve a localized process. Substantial resources are made available for immediate deployment. A preparation process of approximately five weeks precedes the event. An event usually includes training followed by analysis, design, and re-arrangement of a work area. The Event normally takes from two (2) to ten (10) days. The results are immediate, dramatic and satisfying.

A team-based approach of the Kaizen Blitz is essential to building ownership, buy-in, and alignment between different functions and levels within an organization. As improvements are made on the Gemba (actual pace of work) involving the people who do the work and those who support them, solutions tend to be fact based, realistic, and useful to those involved. This is a key to sustainability.


Copyright 2006 QBS, Inc.


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