Process Buzzwords and Gemba Walks

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Looking out the window where I work, my co-workers and I can see the steady progress on the construction of Amazon.com’s new buildings in the South Lake Union neighborhood. Today, safety-vested and hard-hatted troop of people came parading through in the rain, presumably on a tour to see the progress being made. Since we use Lean processes, it seemed analogous to a “gemba walk” that our managers are supposed to conduct regularly.

But why use a term like gemba walk when the Japanese word gemba has a literal meaning of “factory floor” and applies to an industrial process rather than the development of software? Further, for non-Japanese speakers, why use the specific Japanese word when there are plenty of English words that are more immediately understandable to outsiders (those not engaged in applying Lean methodology in the workplace)? It’s not even so much that using this word jars the ear of an English speaker, but that other words to refer to other parts of the process are not used or are, in fact, translated. In a workplace that also embraces kaizen (lit. “improvement”), why are terms like muda (waste) and seiketsu (standardization) not used? When Lean practitioners do recognize waste, they often fail to recognize the differentiation that would be captured by proper use of the Japanese terms (specifically, muda, muri, and mura, the latter two being distinct from more general waste that comes from an inexact translation of muda). To me, as an occasional speaker of Japanese, the reason to use the foreign word is so that the specific nuance of that word isn’t lost or because the translation is too inexact.

To my mind, using the term gemba smacks of putting a new coat of paint on the idea of management by walking around, albeit with a formally defined set of goals and methods. However, I think the formality of the process, typified by the use of ill-defined buzz words, becomes a waste all its own. The danger is that the process becomes a meaningless exercise: “It’s a ‘drive-by’ gemba. No matter how sincere, it is shallow.”

On a related note, the term kaizen rolls off the tongue easier than Kontinuierlicher Verbesserungspozess (such as that employed by Volkswagen), the latter being more in the nature of focussed improvement on a specific process and being more punctuated than the Japanese process.

Addendum: Regarding the use of Japanese terms, Mike Wroblewski has some excellent points and links to arguments both pro and con. In case it’s not clear, I agree with him and don’t think that the Japanese terms should be abolished, but rather that practitioners shouldn’t let the term obscure the intent. By all means use the appropriate terminology to effect the changes the organization wishes to see. If the changes aren’t occurring, then perhaps the managers performing their gemba walk has gotten bogged down in the terminology or process and need to spend more time listening to what is actually being said.


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