A guy by the name of Tony Carr wrote a piece called “Degraded by Dogs and Ponies: The Lying game of Air Force VIP culture” in which he decries the nonsense of visits by top political and military folks to the air base operations. He writes, “Confounding popular myth, visits don’t help senior officials better understand the mission, either. In fact, visits reduce understanding of the mission. There’s nothing about a superficial walk-through that ingrains the essential truths of day-to-day operations.” Of course he’s right; and of course he could be talking about any organization. Nothing unique to the Air Force when it comes to senior folks dropping in for a planned visit, learning next to nothing and accomplishing little more than disrupting things.
Lean folks immediately point to the gemba walk as the alternative – the right way for senior people to engage the front lines. As Michael Bremer wrote in his outstanding book on gemba walks, “Gemba Walks help leaders to distinguish between process and people …. Once people begin to believe leaders truly do separate these two dimensions, people become more comfortable sharing real issues and concerns.”
I am foursquare in favor of gemba walks, and I agree wholeheartedly with Michale Bremer’s insights on the gemba walk process. That said, however, gemba walks are not the end – they are the means to the end. Successful gemba walks result in the need for no more gemba walks.
What Tony Carr is talking about, and Michael Bremer is contrasting that with, is culture. Carr very eloquently describes the lie of the formal visits – masking reality in order to show the senior folks what they want to see, and destroying integrity in the process. Such visits widen the gulf between senior people and the folks creating value. Bremer talks about a healthy culture, quoting Mike Hoseus who said of his Toyota experience, “For us, the Gemba Walk was a way to live out the ‘Servant Leadership’ principle we were taught. A big part of our focus was building a relationship of mutual trust and respect on our walks.”
When that culture of creating self-serving false impressions is replaced with one of mutual trust and respect the timing and agenda for interaction between senior folks and the front line isn’t particularly important. Work life is a never-ending series of ongoing gemba walks. We get to the point that senior folks are on the floor and at the front lines all the time, and it is perceived as nothing unusual or special when they are there – no need for any preparation or structure – they are comfortable with reality and the folks on the floor have trust in the motives of the senior people.
In this regard, gemba walks are like lean accounting. Lean accounting is primarily the device to destroy standard costing and annual budgets – the practices that lead to destructive decisions and create the illusion of direct labor costs being particularly significant. They widen the gulf between senior folks and those creat0ng value and fertilize toxic cultures. Lean accounting is the devise to get rid of that toxic accounting and, instead, engender a healthy culture … and then accounting becomes unimportant. It is not a different lens through which to manage the business. It is the device to oust accounting lenses entirely and enable management to see the business as it really is.
Same with converting to a value stream organizational structure – another technique to drive strong culture; to tear down silo walls and bring people together cross-functionally along process lines. But once that culture is in place, the formal organizational structure becomes relatively unimportant. It doesn’t too much matter who reports to who because no one pays much attention to those relationships.
In the end it is all about culture. Lean is not just replacing formal visits with gemba walks, traditional accounting with lean accounting, functional organizations with cross-functional organizations, or old labor-centric metrics with process metrics. It is about creating a culture in which the relationships between senior people and working folks don’t require scheduled interaction and agendas, one in which accounting is unimportant, in which the org chart is largely unknown, and people don’t manage to numbers.
When gemba walks eliminate the need for gemba walks, lean accounting has eliminated accounting as a management tool, and value stream org charts have rendered org charts meaningless the real magic of lean starts to happen.