Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can. – Arthur Ashe
I think we were in a market in France – a famous one – where a young Picasso once lived and where now painters sit and draw portraits of tourists.
The kids wanted ice lollies and so we were handed some by the vendor – and they expectantly opened the wrapping expecting a riot of colour and delight.
What they got was a brown, congealed mess.
To give the vendor his due, he did open a number of others – all of which were equally dismal – until we gave up and tried ice cream instead.
Maasaki Imai wrote the book Kaizen: The key to Japan’s competitive success in the early eighties and brought the idea of continuous improvement to the rest of the world.
If you want to improve things you can try two ways.
You can spend a lot of money and buy the latest technology.
Or you can use common sense and what you already have.
Kaizen is the second way and Imai’s second book Gemba Kaizen brings the idea of Kaizen to the workplace.
Gemba in Japanese means “real place”, the place where the action happens – where customers experience happens.
Any business, the book quotes, has two kinds of people – those that earn money and those that don’t.
People who come up with products, make them and sell them make money for the company.
Everyone else tags along for the ride.
It’s easier perhaps to think specifically of what happens when a customer comes in contact with your business.
They have expectations – they want strawberry ice cream.
In gemba, they get something – and hopefully it’s strawberry ice cream.
If it is, they are happy.
Now think of what everyone who doesn’t work in gemba does with their time.
Are they helping the people that are in gemba or are they trying to control them?
If you’ve stepped away from the coal face – if you’re a manager or worse, if you’ve come in as a manager and you’ve never done the work then what’s the approach you take?
Do you manage your desk, manage by numbers, manage by KPIs?
Or do you go to gemba and see what is happening for yourself and support the work being done there?
The question is rhetorical really, because the framing of the structure tells you what Imai thinks.
If you don’t do the work that helps meet customer expectations then your only job is to support those who do.
If you see your job as controlling them then you’re going to deliver a poor result.
The ideal thing really would be to have no management at all.
We all simply work in gemba – on things that deliver value to customers.
Because here’s the thing.
Being a manager sucks.
The work is where you get any sense of accomplishment.
And working with people you like, admire and trust makes it fun.
So, if you want to make a difference the axiom to follow, according to Imai, is “Go to gemba first.”
Go and see – and then you will see what to do.