Dr Muhammad Khan
Tuesday, 20 December 2016
When I studied Engineering at university, I learnt about various electro-mechanical systems and the fundamental principles upon which their functions are established. One of the subjects that really enthused me was systems engineering and the complex process of product design and manufacture. I have since worked on many different systems in different industries and most of my work nowadays involves helping designers and managers to improve their design processes.
One of the principles that I like to promote is the importance of the Gemba. Gemba/Genba (現場) is a Japanese word for the ‘site’ or ‘place of action’. The term became part of management lexicon due to the growth of lean thinking. A designer or engineer can define a system, subsystem or component to an incredible level of detail without going to the Gemba. But going to the Gemba can have a massive impact on their work, due to the different aspects of reality that it helps them to appreciate. If you are familiar with Gemba and its sister principle of Genchi Genbutsu (現地現物‘go and see’) then you’re probably thinking that this is nothing new, and you’re absolutely right. The two questions that I would like to raise and shine a light on are (1) what is the Gemba? And (2) what should you do at the Gemba? To help, I will mention two anecdotes.
The second anecdote is a bit more personal. Recently, my car started leaking coolant, and after spending a small fortune to change the radiator, thermostat and water pump, I realised the head gasket had blown. For those of you who don’t know, the head gasket is a sheet of metal that sits between the cylinder head (top) and engine block (bottom); it ensures good compression and keeps gases, coolant and oil separate. Unfortunately changing the head gasket is one of the most time-consuming and costly car repairs because it involves taking the engine to pieces, literally. I reluctantly booked my car in for the repair, but I kept thinking of how much I could learn by doing the repair myself.
The first question I raised was what is the Gemba? And in my experience, many people understand it to mean an end product, its environment and how it operates. The Sienna anecdote exemplifies this understanding. I don’t disagree with this view, but I think that experiencing and understanding more ‘Gembas’, including a product’s manufacturing process, assembly, maintenance, parts being replaced, parts and products being transported etc. can lead to better designs and in turn better products.