I’ve written before about the idea that organisations often have a line of truth – a vericline – across them. Below that line, the often-disastrous reality is known; above that line, it’s not. It’s why big, complex projects often look rosy until just before they were originally due to be completed, but are then revealed at the last minute to be miles behind schedule.

This problem was well-known to the pioneers of lean manufacturing and kaizen (continuous improvement) in Japan. Luckily, though, they developed an antidote: the genba walk.1

In Japanese, genba means “the actual place” or “the real place” – the place where the real work happens. Even just that framing is an interesting one: where in your organisation does the “real work” happen? Not in the board room, most likely, but perhaps not in an office or a factory either. For a band, it’s probably the recording studio; for a manufacturing business, it’s certainly the factory floor; in finance, it might be the floor of the stock exchange but might equally be the chatrooms where traders fling messages around to one another. The genba walk, then, involves leaders going to where the actual work is happening to see for themselves what’s going on.

Toyota, pioneers of kaizen, summarise this approach with the phrase “genchi genbutsu”, which literally means “real location, real thing” but perhaps more figuratively means “go and see for yourself”. Hammering home the “gen” prefixes, Toyota encourage people when solving a problem to consider three things:

  1. Genba – to go to see the actual place where the problem occurred

  2. Genbutsu – to verify the actual objects related to the problem

  3. Genjitsu – to obtain the actual facts about what’s happening

But merely showing up isn’t enough. If you wanted to do a genba walk as badly and as destructively as possible, how might you go about it? First, you’d try to remind everyone of the organisational hierarchy; like a politician donning a high-vis jacket and helmet for a photo opportunity, you’d make the visit all about you. You’d focus on people, rather than on process; if you saw someone doing something “incorrectly”, you’d call it out in front of everyone. You’d reinforce a culture of fear, so that people hid bad news from you and so that you saw a sanitised version of reality (like the Queen, who Billy Connolly once observed must think the whole world smells of fresh paint). You’d trust your own opinion over others’, so wouldn’t take with you an extra pair of eyes or ask the views of those on the ground. Instead of taking away observations to think about them and reserving judgement until you had all the facts, you’d leap to conclusions and try to solve things there and then.

Doing a genba walk badly makes things worse; doing a genba walk well both requires and creates a culture of trust within the organisation. Their purpose is to discover why things are the way they are, and to collaborate with the team in improving things in some small way. Done in good faith and in a spirit of improvement, the genba walk allows leaders to cross the vericline and see reality as it really is. But that’s only the first-order benefit; a well-done culture of genba walking fosters trust and collaboration, ensuring that the vericline never emerges in the first place.

Further reading

James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. “The Machine That Changed the World”. Simon & Schuster, 2007

Niklas Modig, Ryusuke Kosuge and Pär Åhlström. “Services: lessons from Toyota”. LMJ, 2012

“Gemba Walk: Where the Real Work Happens”. Kanbanize

“Taiichi Ohno”. Wikipedia

  1. “Genba” is sometimes spelled “gemba” in English, a spelling that is less accurate to the Japanese spelling but perhaps more accurate to its pronunciation.