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Lean IT, Service Management

Gemba – the art of walking around!

Have you ever wondered why change programs (the likes of Lean Six Sigma, BPM, Enterprise Architecture, ITIL, COBIT, ERP etc) are roaring success in some organisations and utter failures in others? There are many reports analysing the failures. The analyses often point to the lack of leadership commitment and budget constraints as some of the key reasons.

Even when you have leadership commitment and budget, the program can still fail. It is because the leadership team overlook the fundamental principles – foundation pillars – of all these improvement initiatives. They also deliberately interpret the management/improvement terminologies to suit their convenience.

In this blog, I will discuss about the misinterpretations of the terms “top down” and “bottom up” approaches. And more importantly a very simple fix!

Bottom down – how not to implement:

Our case organisation-A is a small financial services business. They were initiating an improvement program using Lean Six Sigma.

Their approach was to train the team members in a 2 day in house program. In addition they employed a full-time improvement coach.

It was clear there was no involvement from the senior management in identifying, prioritising, executing and monitoring the improvement programs. The management view is that their approach is “bottom up”. In other words, if they send the people to lean training and employ a coach, improvements will occur automatically.

The leadership is “committed” because they have funded the program. Their commitment stopped here. After all, the lean principles state that the staff should drive the improvement.

Please look at the wall – can you read the result of this program written on the wall?

Top down – how not to implement

Our case organisation-B took a different approach. Org-B provide essential services in one of the transport sectors in Australia. The improvement team consists of Black Belts in the headquarters who would drive the program. The headquarters is in Canberra and the transport services are provided from Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney and Perth.

It is very clear that the “action” happens in transport hubs. The value is created there! Waste occur there! The managers in the “black belts” do not have any clear understanding of the issues faced by the operations. They sit in an ivory tower and come up with “improvement programs” to drive changes in the operations.

This is a classical misinterpretation of “top down” approach.

Gemba – the art of walking around!

Both these organisations, have not understood the basics of Lean thinking. This fundamental principle is very much embraced in Six Sigma too.

I will directly quote from James Womack who has introduced Lean to the western world, through his seminal books “Lean thinking” and “Lean solutions”

The very first lines of “Lean solutions” are:

Let us take a walk”. This has been our standard response for many years when an organisation asks us to talk about lean thinking. The firm’s managers usually want to meet in the conference room or the CEO’s office. But we know from long experience that the value is only created on gemba – the Japnense word for the place in the office or factory where the real work is done. So that’s always the place we insist on starting what the true situation is

The managers need to be aware of Gemba. If you are a trying to improve efficiency of an airport, go to the check-in counter and observe the system. If you want improve a hospital, start by observing the patient admission area. For financial services, travel with broker or visit a call centre. Start with a customer and observe each area in the value stream.

Do not let your million dollar improvement program crumble because of a lack of a foundation pillar – walking to the work place and observing!

Go to your Gemba today!


About Murali Ramakrishnan

Murali is the Managing Director of the boutique consulting firm "Process-Symphony". Process-Symphony specializes in IT enabled business process orchestration. http://www.process-symphony.com.au http://www.kloudax.net.au


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