Gemba is a term borrowed from Japanese language and often used in reference to the Toyota Production System’s (TPS) notion of “the real place” where work is being performed, the production floor. The reason why this concept was important in TPS is due to the thinking that in order to make a meaningful improvement, one needs to attend the production floor and carefully observe to understand what is happening and how.
This notion is critical to product development, too. However the application of the concept is a little different as there isn’t an obvious physical “Gemba” where one could walk and see the state of the production. Instead, where knowledge workers are involved, the actual “production” moves to a different medium that either needs to be attended directly or via one of its adequate representations.
In software engineering, the actual physical space were engineers spend their time, does not directly pertain to Gemba. Also, various artificial ways to “simulate” Gemba, such as planning and synchronization events, however useful, have the same problem (see Gemba Surrogates anti-pattern). The actual “medium” where software engineers operate is their code, the system under development. That is why walking to the team space and talking occasionally to developers is not an example of Gemba and may instead create a false sense of security.
It is key to remember that all value of Gemba comes from the fact that Gemba always involves deep context!
For management, to attend Gemba in the case of knowledge workers doesn’t necessarily imply to dive into coding with them or other similar extremes. It rather means to be as close as possible to the process of value creation and that may be effectively realized via the following means:
- Attending teams “in the moment”, when there is high degree of focus and everyone stays deep in the context of the matter under consideration
- Doing that around problem-solving or decision-making is especially helpful
- Getting first-hand opinions only and not relying on a chain of command (see Telephone Game anti-pattern)
Gemba is providing one of the key tools to “stitching” the disjointed parts of the organization (see Semiconductor Organization for comparison).