Gemba is a Japanese term that means ‘actual place’. If like me, you like the odd bit of history, the gemba can sometimes send a shiver down your spine, to be where something important happened. As an enthusiastic reader of Patrick O’Brian’s books, (see one of my favourite and most read posts: Aubrey and Maturin, Arthur and Merlin), visiting HMS Victory had that effect.
It’s a schadenfreude type of word – a word for a concept that we all recognise, but for which there is no word in our language – like schadenfreude. I’m sure there should be a name for such a word – and there probably is: if not in English, then probably in some language. Of course, in English, we don’t need to make up words, we just borrow or steal these ‘loan words’ from their source language.
There is in fact a whole book of these types of words and I expect it would tell me what they are called. Is there a word for ‘a book I’d love to have but would probably only look at for a few minutes and then put on a shelf and never look at again, so I shan’t buy it unless it turns up for a quid at a charity shop’? Suggestions below, please.
Back to the Gemba
Wikipedia tells me that gemba is used by Japanese police for the scene of a crime, and their on-the-spot reporters report from the gemba.
I discovered the word gemba through its association with another Japanese concept ‘kaizen’ or ‘improvement’. In the body of knowledge, practices and tools called kaizen, ‘going to the gemba’ means heading for where the work is done and the value is created. I spotted the word in The Improving Efficiency Pocketbook.
Usually, it’s pretty easy to come up with a topic for a Pocketblog, but this week, I had a serious bout of blogger’s block: about 24 hours’ worth. My usual solutions failed me: flicking through Pocketbooks, grazing the web, walking about, taking my daughter to the park and sleeping on it.
So in desperation, with little time left, I went to the gemba. I sat at my computer and stared. I looked for a Pocketbook I’d not read yet and grabbed Improving Efficiency and decided that, come what may, I’d write about it. Then I saw it:
‘got a problem? Go to the gemba.’
I could never resist irony. I had to write about it.
So here’s the deal
When you want to solve a problem or improve a process, go to where the work gets done, where the problem is happening, where the workers work. As Philip Holman and Derek Snee say in the Improving Efficiency Pocketbook:
‘Attempting to solve problems in isolation (perhaps in a management meeting) without visiting the workplace and involving the people who actually do the work is a recipe for failure.’