16 July 2013
When Japanese people hear the word gemba, they pay extra attention.
Gemba is written with the Sino-Japanese characters “gen” (現), which means “to appear” or “at present” and is used in such words as genzai (“appearance” plus “presence,” i.e. “right now”) and gendai (“current” plus “generation,” i.e. “modern times”), and “ba” (場), which means a place. When combined to read gemba, the expression literally means the place where someone or something appears.
In everyday usage, however, gemba means being on the scene, or where the human element comes in. A reporter covering a big news event, for example, might telephone his editor and say, “Ima gemba desu” (I’m at the scene right now).
In a business context, the word captures a sense of immediacy and involvement and can be understood to refer to the places where value is created in all phases of a product’s life cycle.
“Gemba captures a sense of immediacy and involvement and refers to the places where value is created.”
According to Roger Schreffler, a Tokyo-based trade journalist for Ward’s Automotive, the word first became popularized in the context of motor vehicles back in the 1930s. In those days, roads were still primitive and repair facilities few and far between. When a serious problem occurred, the company manager would personally drop whatever he was doing and go to the site of the breakdown—the gemba—to observe the problem first-hand.
When related to R&D or manufacturing, gemba is translated as “on the factory floor” or “on-site.” On the design and production side, engineers and assembly workers engage in gemba kaizen, literally “on the spot improvements,” through innovative ways to reduce waste and boost efficiency as well as develop and implement enhancements to vehicle safety.
In the case of sales and aftermarket service, it refers to satisfying customers’ needs through speedy response and conscientious follow-up to feedback. A frequently heard expression among managers in Japanese companies is gemba shugi, which can be described as a policy of hands-on management, or management involvement at the grass-roots level, something widely seen as a key strength of Japanese manufacturing.
In this sense, gemba can be considered the diametric opposite of the term “ivory tower.” Trusting people on-site to provide decision makers with on-the-spot evaluations means fewer worries about complexities such as internal politics, and more time spent focusing on actually solving problems. This translates directly into greater quality and reliability—attributes that are known worldwide today as central Japanese production values.