Gemba Walks by Jim Womack

Jim Womack has co-authored  two of the most important management books of the last thirty years : The Machine that changed the world (1990) and Lean Thinking 1995. In Gemba Walks, the Lean Expert has curated about 60 short essays he has written between 2001 and 2010. These were originally e-letters dedicated to the observations he made while visiting the shop floor (the Gemba) of companies on their way to become lean ones.

This is a very inspiring book and a strongly recommended read for anyone interested in the core mission of managament. Jim Womack defines it as fostering a creative tension between management two main axis : functional and vertical towards the CEO and horizontal and value stream driven towards the customer. Read on for enlightening thoughts …

Purpose, process and people

Womack focus mainly on these three pillars of the organisation. Defining purpose is the role of leaders. Processes responsibility is evryone’s. It is rather important as bad processes, beyond bad products, create bad people.  The respect for people definition is quite valuable as it moves away from hippie thinking. It is to empower people to fix bad processes and the idea here is that respect is embodied by the right challenge given to the right people.

“We should be leading the way in showing how to rethink every process producing bad people along with poor results. bad processes create bad employees (…) We hire smart people and we give them great latitude in how they do their work because we trust them and we hold them to objective measures of performance . That’s respect for people. Overtime I’ve come to realize that engaging in this problem solving process is the highest form of respect for people.”

Functions Vs Value Stream 

One of the core idea of this book evolves around the tension between vertical functions and horizontal value streams. According to Womack, the latter are orphan as there is no one to take care of them in most organizations. This is the reason why there is so much waste. So why are enterprise organised around functions ?

“Enterprise are organized vertically by department because they think it is the most practical way to store knowledge and channel careers.”  Which leads to the main problem of most enterprises : they are structured around the organization, not around the customer.

Gemba Walks

The whole point in Gemba Walks is : “Go and see, ask why, show respect (the words of Fuiji Cho – who has been trained by Taiichi Ohno). If we all walk and think deeply before acting, the world would be a better place. Purpose of a walk : to see and understand how more value can be created with less waste.”

Modern Management Vs Lean Management

A great comparison in 10 principles. Refer to corresponding article. Womack provides a great definition of management : “aligning people and processes with customer purpose.” And he notices that management will try anything easy that does not work (re-organization, the hiring of the providential hero, buying a new IT system, having consultants defining the new system, etc …) before trying anything hard that does.

Lean information management 

Another very actionable and insightful perspective : Womack provides great principles to leanify your information management.

First point is to simplify every process to minimize your need for information management. Second is to make every step in you process capable (removing waste, variability and unevenness) and available. Third, schedule each value stream from only one point. Fourth, the core of pull system and the most complicated to apprehend : use a reflexive production control upstream from the scheduling point. Five : send information in small batches. Six : make your information management transparent and intuitive. You can tell how much room left for improvement we still have.

Why you should read this book

This book is a set of essays organized in a very sensible order : Purpose, Process, People, Management, Transformation and Diffusion : these are the order to tackle any organization transformation. Yet you can read these essays in the order you like depending on your interest. Beyond the structure, there is a sense of precision and going right to the heart of every issue tackled. This makes the book readable yet very profound.

And Gemba is presented here as the common thread of successful transition from “managing by vertically oriented results to managing by horizontal processes” while helping managers embracing a distinctive way of thinking”.

Elaborating on Edgar Schein, one could say that this success is achieved because Gemba Walks allow to reconcile the main sub-cultures of the organization : executive’s, engineer’s and operator’s. A genuine act of leadership.


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