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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

Gemba Walk Is Not Enough

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I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Gemba walk. On one hand I just love the idea to go and see. In fact, whenever I have an issue to solve or a question to ask I prefer to move my butt and go meet someone instead of writing an email, chatting on IM or calling. I just use any pretext I have to meet people face to face.

On the other hand, the idea of the Gemba walk, in its roots, goes way beyond simply solving issues. Just think about all those stories where leaders had their epiphanies when they randomly walked through a factory floor. Gemba walk isn’t just supposed to be an issue solving tool. Its main function is issue discovery, whatever an issue might mean.

And this is where the hate part of my love-hate relationship starts. My previous professional life was leading 150 people. It meant that most of the time I was alienated. In a situation like that, you just don’t go into a team’s room as if nothing happened as almost certainly the observer effect kicks in and you experience something more like a play than reality.

Not to mention that if you happen to be an introvert the whole activity can be insanely difficult for you.

Obviously, it may be a very different experience if the organizational culture of a company is open and people generally trust each other. One, it isn’t that painful. Two, there is less acting and more honest and open discussions.

It is still only halfway through though. As long as someone is willing to become vulnerable and open themselves you will learn something new. There is, however, the whole black mass of issues no one is really aware of so chances that you learn about them during a discussion are non-existent.

In a plant you might spot something just by watching how stuff is arranged on a factory floor. In software development you don’t get even that. And, by the way, even if you brought your Gemba to the level of looking at things, e.g. code review, you still miss the point.

No matter what the problem is, it’s always a people problem.

~Gerald M. Weinberg

Following this advice, you shouldn’t look at things; you should look at people, their characters, behaviors and interactions. That’s where Gemba walk fails.

You can’t make meaningful observations in the meantime, while you walk around and ask about everyone’s wellbeing spending just a while here before going there and then coming back to your own stuff. You can’t make meaningful observations of team dynamics during a chat with everyone.

You have to be there. You have to breath the same air, share the same stories and see the same everyday routine. You have to become familiar and friendly enough that they stop playing. Or be there long enough so they get tired playing and become real.

It doesn’t happen in fifteen minutes. It takes days. Weeks maybe. On the other hand you may expect a few low hanging fruits, which you spot pretty quickly, e.g. the way people address themselves in a discussion. Either way it doesn’t happen when Mr. Leader enters a room for his whatever-he-calls-it thing. It happens when a leader becomes almost invisible, sitting there in a corner, minding their own business and using those occasional bursts of action to learn something about their team.

And this is why Gemba walk isn’t enough. It’s just scratching the surface hoping for luck.

in: software business, team management

6 comments… add one

  • Bob Marshall January 8, 2013, 1:18 am

    I feel nervous when I hear folks advise evaluating and judging others. But I’m in agreement with your key point – the challenge of observing team dynamics. IMO the only way to do this effectively is to actually be a member of the team in question. This seems unlikely for most in “leadership” positions?

    – Bob

  • Pawel Brodzinski January 8, 2013, 1:45 am

    @Bob – It wasn’t my goal to advise judging others, but learning about others. If that was the impression you’ve got after reading the post, it definitely wasn’t my intention.

    Interesting that you’ve (indirectly) mentioned you fellowship movement. You may look at this from two perspectives. You’re right saying that few leaders would do this. At least few leaders would do this today. On the other hand for me, being more conservative than you, it perfectly suits the leadership boundaries. Or maybe it is treating definitions more loosely and more flexibly?

    In fact this is a picture of mindset change but it may very well happen within existing leadership memeplex.

    As I stated many times before – I’m very happy with leadership concept. Of course different people perceive leadership differently, but it doesn’t mean, at least not for me, that we have to abandon the idea and find something instead. We may improve what leadership is. And this is my way of attacking the problem.

  • JL Patino November 21, 2013, 7:54 am

    It’s always a people problem… yet, in countless references when solving a problem you are asked not to blame people for their mistakes but the systems that allowed human mistakes to transcend. I lean towards the countless references, although I recognize that there is a part of people management and leadership that also has to take place in order to maintain a harmonious work environment.
    I liked your post. I think that sometimes some of these words become hype or fad and then people use it everywhere. I am working on a presentation about Root Cause Analysis, and I decided to put Gemba, and I am saying that it is just a fancy word to describe something that many of our supervisors have done for years.
    Lastly, we should all work on empowering employees to do the Gemba (and all related stuff) themselves; they are part of the team already, aren’t they? I don’t think Gemba was meant only as a way to get leaders out of their offices!

  • Pawel Brodzinski November 21, 2013, 1:52 pm

    @JL, Gemba in its origin is “go and see.” It isn’t limited to leaders. The advantage teams frequently have over leaders is that they are (almost) always on their own factory floor.

    Often line manager would be there too. However, the higher you go in the hierarchy the less and less managers and leaders are connected to everyday work, common problems and their teams.

    That’s why focus of Gemba walks evolved toward the leaders I guess.

    Nevertheless, I still think that, while valuable technique, it doesn’t fully solve any problem.

  • Michael Bremer June 26, 2015, 2:37 pm

    You posted this some time ago….so perhaps you have changed your perspective. While it is about people, people are NOT the problem. You quoted Deming, I spent time with him many years ago. Deming said, “85% of all performance problems, are not people problems, they are process problems…” And management owns the processes people use for doing work. So 85% of all performance problems are owned by management.

    I had a great deal of difficulty with this statement when Dr. Deming first said it. But over the years I have learned it is true. Management owns the tools people use for doing work, management hires the people who work in the company, management owns support systems (metrics, communication, planning, etc.).

    So a key purpose in doing a Gemba Walk from my perspective (and I’ve written a book on the subject) is to better understand how well your processes are/are not working.

    You are right it is a tad awkward in the beginning to do these walks. But if the walker’s primary goal is to show support, to better understand what is happening from a process perspective and shows some humility. There is much to be gained from this exercise.
    Best wishes,
    Michael Bremer

  • Pawel Brodzinski June 26, 2015, 2:52 pm

    @Michael Bremer — I didn’t change the perspective. In fact, I wrote more on systems thinking in the context of knowledge work. The argument from that post applies here as well.

    As long as a general idea to understand the work applies here fully, I don’t agree with a distinction between “owned by management” and “owned by workers” in the context of knowledge work.

    I say that because I actually went for a Gemba walk plenty of times and (again, in this context) you don’t just see things the way you see them on a catwalk over a factory floor.

    As Russel Ackoff said: “A system is not a sum of behaviors of its parts; it’s a product of their interactions.” In knowledge work parts are people. And you can’t see interactions between people during a Gemba walk… unless it lasts for weeks that is.

    That’s why a simple translation of a Gemba walk from a factor floor context doesn’t work in my world. Of course principles still stand true. Except if you want to pursue the principles a practice of going and seeing for a short while is not nearly enough.

    My way of implementing principles means basically living with a team for weeks. Ideally in a setup that eventually makes you invisible. I’d take my bean bag and a laptop table and move to a room where a team works. For weeks. Sometimes months. Only then I can see interactions, as we aren’t talking about complicated physical process. We’re talking about complex interpersonal relationships.

    The real process is hidden there. The real understanding too.

    Unless you’re ready to go that far, a simple translation of a Gemba walk from a factory floor won’t give you much.

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