Gemba Kaizen

Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is a Japanese management philosophy that has gained worldwide acceptance through countless success stories. Masaaki Imai’s Gemba Kaizen, now in its second edition, thoroughly explains the Kaizen concept, from Edwards Deming’s Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle to the Toyota Production System. Along the way, he provides case studies on 5S, 5M, JIT, the elimination of waste, variation, and overburden, and Total Flow management.

The true value of this book, however, is in the understanding of “Gemba” in its relation to Kaizen. Roughly translated, Gemba means real place. The Gemba can be thought of as ground zero. It is not just the shop floor, it is the scene of the crime, it is being on location, or when considering Kaizen, it is the place where value is added.

For the most part, western management is aware that sustained continuous improvement must involve every employee and that top management must demonstrate their support for such programs, but the true value of the Gemba is often missed. Imai advocates a paradigm shift such that engineers and managers are part of the Gemba. The Golden Rules of Gemba Management are:

  1. Go to the Gemba First
  2. Check the Gembutsu (something physical – defect or downed equipment)
  3. Take Temporary Countermeasures on the Spot
  4. Find the Root Cause
  5. Standardize to Prevent Recurrence

Another paradigm shift for western management that Mr. Imai emphasizes is that Kaizen projects must improve Quality, Cost, and Delivery simultaneously. These can no longer be taken as independent with any one being sacrificed to improve another if companies are to remain competitive. QCD activities therefore must bridge such functions as research and development, engineering, production, sales, and after-sales service. The diagram below from Toyota Machine Works Quality assurance system shows the interactions of such departments in delivering QCD objectives.

Management activities in achieving QCD goals can be categorized as either maintaining or improving current standards. Maintenance activities are required when rejects from internal customers or returns from dissatisfied external customers occurEither situation can usually be traced to issues arising in the Gemba. Here, managers must be concerned with determining the root cause and should implement the Standardize-Do-Check-Act derivation of Deming’s cycle. When seeking to improve the current standards, the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle is used. Both adaptations along with relevant case studies are fully explained by Imai.

In fulfilling both maintenance, and improvement activities, managers of all levels will find Mr. Imai’s outlines of the roles of group leaders, foremen, supervisors, section managers, and CEOs extremely useful. Excerpts from Toyota Astra Motor Company’s role manual provide a wonderful benchmark for Gemba Kaizen practitioners.

Mr. Imai’s explanation of the five steps of workplace organization (5S; Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, and Shitsuke) in Japanese terminology along with their English counterparts (Sort, Straighten, Scrub, Systematize, and Standardize) lay the foundation for Kaizen. Imai also takes a detailed look at the elimination of Muda (waste), Mura (variation), and Muri (Overburden). The Gemba manager must also manage the 5Ms of Man, Machine, Materials, Methods, and Measurement applying visual management techniques. These 5Ms along with environmental causes are most often associated with the Ishikawa cause and effect diagram when performing standard maintenance activities in search of root causes of defects.

The two day Kaizen blitz to achieve one piece flow has proven to be extremely popular since its inception in 1977 by Nissan Motor Company and is well documented with numerous case study examples for all engineers and managers to profit from. Gemba Kaizen adeptly uses the blitz in conjunction with Total Productive Maintenance (TPM), Total Quality Management (TQM), and Toyota Business Practice (TBP) to support the golden rules of Gemba management in building a methodology of process improvements and innovations for long term financial success in achieving Quality, Cost, and Delivery goals.

In today’s marketplace, every business must look to ways to stay competitive. Masaaki Imai’s commonsense approach to continuous improvement will appeal to all levels of any organization implementing lean strategies to achieve performance results. In completing the story of Kaizen, Mr. Imai has successfully brought it out of the training room and back to its roots in the Gemba.

This review was written by Bob Simmons. Bob Simmons currently teaches Industrial Engineering Technology at Northwestern State University. He holds degrees in Mechanical and Manufacturing Systems Engineering. He holds a six sigma black belt certification, and is actively involved in the Institute of Industrial Engineers; American Society for Engineering Education; American Society for Quality; and the Production and Operations Management Society.