Gemba, and Genchi-Genbutsu

Gemba, and Genchi-Genbutsu are commonly used terms in the Lean community, with many web pages and blog posts purportedly explaining what they mean. For example, the following confused and simplistic statement is what you find on Wikipedia:

Genchi Genbutsu (現地現物) means “go and see” and it is a key principle of the Toyota Production System. It suggests that in order to truly understand a situation one needs to go to gemba (現場) or, the ‘real place’ – where work is done.

What are we actually talking about? 

This is how I understand them:

  • Gemba: In production, Gemba (現場) is the shop floor, and it can be quite large. Manufacturing managers — and engineers — should know their way around it, where machines, lines, and stores are, how materials flow, who works there, and what issues they are struggling with. It sounds obvious, but I remember visiting a machine shop in Los Angeles with its owner, who had not set foot on its shop floor for two years.I also remember a Mexican maquiladora on the US border, with a plant manager who made his rounds on the floor every morning, greeting the workers, checking out performance boards, and asking questions. He had an employee turnover rate that was one fourth the average of other plants in the area. The maquiladoras employed mostly young women from the countryside, who stayed a year or two, saved their money, and went home. This plant manager lost 11% of his workforce per year, which would still be considered high elsewhere, but the other maquiladoras averaged a catastrophic 44%.It’s a matter of daily management discipline.
  • Genchi Genbutsu: By contrast, Genchi Genbutsu (現地現物) is specific to problem-solving. Genchi (現地) is the actual place where the problem originated or has been discovered. Within a Gemba of 200,000 SqFt, it may be grid location F3 where a lathe has started cranking out defectives. Genbutsu is the “actual object,” for example the defective parts. Instead of responding to a problem by email, a phone conversation, or a meeting in a conference room over charts and drawings or 3D renderings on a computer screen, you should go to the “crime scene” — where you can smell the burned rubber, see the oil of the floor or the wrong gasket in the bin, and get the perspective of the operators — that’s the Genchi part. Then you observe, measure, or disassemble the actual defectives — that’s the Genbutsu part.