Leadership Lessons from the Front Line – Go to the Gemba

Reading about leadership in the books is very different from going down to the front line and implementing leadership in a factory. For one, it’s hot, dusty and dirty.I’d like to share some of this so perhaps you don’t have to get hot, dusty or dirty (at least not for the moment).

A key lesson in most LEAN textbooks is “go to the gemba” or go to the front line. Implementing this practice has taught me three key lessons:-

  1. People are inherently good. They want to do “the right thing”. No one wakes up with bad intentions and a desire to cheat.
  2. Going to down (“turun padang”) and support the front line ask questions (instead of critiquing) helps achieve business results.
  3. Leaders shouldn’t make assumptions until they spend some time on the front line.

Case Study

One of the plant managers I work with was very frustrated with his lab team. He told me that they weren’t making their targets and their work was late. Over lunch, he mentioned that he would issue a warning letter if they didn’t start working. I asked him to hold on and in line with LEAN, let’s have a look at how they work. We agreed to spend the afternoon at their workplace and observing them and asking questions.

We spent the afternoon at the lab. We asked the team how things were. We asked them to show us their processes and how they worked. Spending the afternoon with them was beneficial as it helped reinforce the following messages:-

  1. The leaders care about you and your team.
  2. The leaders are there to support you and your team.
  3. If you don’t meet your targets, we are there to help make your job easier so we can all meet our targets.

We saw their processes. The testing process involved writing results into 4 logbooks, using a calculator to input the results into another logbook and then logging the final results into a computer that constantly hung.

The process was a case study for waste. The logbooks happened to be all over the lab which meant there was waste of motion. With multiple data entry points, it was no wonder that there were frequent errors. The slow computer caused delay and frustration among the team. It was not surprising that the team didn’t meet their deadlines.

Key lesson No 1.

None of the lab team had the intention of not meeting their deadlines. They all wanted to do good work. They were very frustrated that they couldn’t do good work. People all want work well – you just have to find a way to help them work better.

Key lesson No 2.

Go to the front line. Ask questions. The questions are more powerful than giving the answers.  Our questions included the following:-

  1. Is this process efficient?
  2. What do you need to make it more efficient?
  3. How can we support you to help you meet your deadlines?
  4. What suggestions would you have to help your work?

These coaching style questions helped get the lab team to think. They also helped put the ownership of the processes with the lab team. In a lot of cases, companies will hire productivity consultants who will write new Standard Operating Policies. These thick books will rarely be read and kept in the management library in mint condition. The SOPs will not be implemented as no one reads them nor do they feel ownership of the processes.

Key lesson No 3

Not making any assumptions is essential before you go down to the front line.By withholding judgment of the team, and keeping an open mind, the plant manager was able to delve into the root cause of the issue with the cooperation of the team.

The benefits of making the team re look at their own processes are as follows:-

  1. The team work on this process every day. No one knows the process better – certainly not a consultant and definitely not a manager.
  2. By getting the team to improve the process they take ownership for this. The issue of non-compliance doesn’t arise as they worked on this process. They certainly wouldn’t rewrite a process that they couldn’t follow.
  3. The team also feel greater ownership and sense of engagement within the organization. By implementing ideas from the front line, people feel recognized. This increases employee engagement.

Instead of issuing the warning letters to the team, the plant manager now had a better understanding of the team. By helping the team, he had increased the trust and respect the team had for him. This resulted in :-

1. An engaged team. The lab team are now giving 1 improvement idea per person/month vs 1 improvement idea per team/month. This shows a measurable increase in engagement as well as ownership of the business.

2. Better business results. The lab was now able to meet their on time goal for a whole month.

3. This has translated into better business performance and better results for the organization.

As a leader, keeping the three key lessons at the top of mind when working with your teams will help you drive sustainable performance with your teams. It will also lead to a better culture which in turn leads to greater profits. For further details on how your company can develop a culture of ownership, please call us on 03 6201 4355.

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