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The Real Place

5 min

Interested in a simple yet massively transformational practice you can immediately apply to your own life?

Then this week’s email is for you. 🙂


Where can I Gemba Walk in my own life?


If you’re at all like me (and you probably are, since you’re here), you set some goals for 2021.

In all likelihood, you’re going to struggle to achieve those goals. I know I will. After all, if our goals were easy to achieve we’d have achieved them already!

The good news is that there are a few simple processes that can make that struggle much less intense.

Today, I’m going to share one that’s had a profound effect on my own life:

The Gemba Walk.

Gemba is a Japanese word meaning “the real place” – as in, “this is where the real work happens.”

A Gemba Walk is a process first codified by Taiichi Ohno, and executive at Toyota behind much of what today is known as “Lean” manufacturing.

In a manufacturing context, a Gemba Walk meant “walking the plant floor, observing production, and interacting with employees” to identify and solve problems. That’s an extremely simple concept, but it was highly transformative in practice.

Gemba Walks have three critical components:

Presence: the leader literally walks the floor, observing the work area in person. Gemba Walking is rooted in direct observation. We’re not thinking about where things ought to be, or how they ought to work; we’re paying attention to what is happening in practice.

Asking Why: Identifying problems is one thing; solving them is another. As students in my Difference Engine seminar will remember, multiple problems can be solved in one fell swoop by finding and addressing root causes or surface-level problems. The simplest way to find the root cause is to continuously ask why something is happening until you can’t get any further.

Process, Not People: Gemba Walking is never about blaming the individual. It’s not about one particular person’s performance. Why? Because an individual’s performance (assuming they deserve to be there in the first place) is more a product of the system they’re put into than it is their individual work ethic or ability. Blaming someone solves nothing; addressing the underlying causes affecting their performance is the only way to see real improvement.

What does a Gemba Walk look like outside of the factory? Let’s explore an example from my own life.

I’ve been developing the habit of cleaning my desk before I leave work each day.

In the beginning this was simply for peace of mind; I prefer a tidy desk, especially in the morning, when I tend to be most productive.

It’s a simple process: before I leave work I spend 5 minutes moving mail off my desk and onto a chair, putting pens away, arranging notebooks, putting books back on shelves, etc.

After the 7th consecutive day of moving mail off of my desk and onto a chair, however, it occurred to me that I could transform this cleaning process into a Gemba Walk by adding one additional step:

Asking why.

Why am I moving this mail off my desk every day?

Well…because I don’t have a mailbox, someone slides new mail under my door.

And I don’t want to leave it there, because I’ll step on it. Since I see it on my way to the desk when I come in each morning, I just….put it on the desk.

I don’t like having it on the desk, but I’m afraid that if I put it away somewhere I’ll forget about it. So it stays on my desk.

My schedule is pretty packed lately, so I haven’t had much time at work to do anything outside of my scheduled tasks. That means that the mail on my desk piles up over time.

When the pile stresses me out, I move it to the chair, because the chair is still in view.

Asking “why” something is happening can reveal a series of interlocking causes beneath the surface of even the simplest problem.

For the above, I pinpointed two primary issues:

Putting some mail time on my calendar on Fridays took care of problem number one; buying a wire basket took care of problem number two.

What’s the value of a process like this?

For one, performing regular Gemba Walks through the various parts of your life can be deeply transformative.

We don’t realize the effect these “little nuisances” have on us. These little problems all take a toll on our cognitive capacity.

Secondly, fixing these issues not just at the surface-level but at their root, can have significant second-order effects that we don’t anticipate.

I am extremely bad at processing my mail. I pay bills late, ignore tax notices, accidentally throw away checks.

Fixing my mail problem will lead to increased income over time, since I’ll be paying fewer late fees and interest. My overall stress levels will decline, since I’ll actually be on top of my taxes instead of waiting until the last possible second… And I’ll feel happier and more productive on average.

Most importantly:

Gemba Walks are a way of practicing systems thinking.

They teach us to deal with problems not just as they present themselves to us, but as the final manifestation of a web of systems interactions. They teach us that the “little things” are often symptoms of larger, more serious issues…and that it’s pointless to blame ourselves without addressing the systems we’re enmeshed in.

Making a regular practice of improving our lives from the group up is what Gemba Walks are all about.

And that’s something that I, at the very least, need more of.



Cool Stuff To Read:

As a big fan of the blog 43 Folders, I was fascinated by this New Yorker article called “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.”

The article does a good job of pointing at some of the more problematic aspects of online “productivity” culture. This section, in particular, forms the basis of my own productivity system (lovingly named Personal DanBan), as does Gemba Walking. I’m hoping to make a course on that system this year.

“Consider instead a system that externalizes work. Following the lead of software developers, we might use virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card that specifies who is doing the work, and is pinned under a column indicating its status. With a quick glance, you can now ascertain everything going on within your team and ask meaningful questions about how much work any one person should tackle at a time. With this setup, optimization becomes possible.”

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