Go to the Gemba

GembaShow of hands. Who knows what the title of this post means?

As I’ve mentioned before, my son is a higher ed IT management consultant. From him I learn many fascinating things about what’s going on in the world of management theory and practice. Recently he told me that one of his favorite approaches–Lean, derived from Toyota’s management style in the 1980’s (which was the heart of Japan’s conquering the automobile industry)–incorporates the concept “Go to the Gemba.” As I maintained a respectful (and silent) ignorance, he patiently explained that “go to the gemba” means, basically, go to the source or go to where the action occurs.

John had already made the connection between this concept and much of my work. The goal in industry is to maximize value created and minimize waste. “Going to the gemba” serves that end. Arts marketers (good ones) have for years observed that it’s critical to meet with audience members and find out from them what is important to their decision to attend an arts event. (Lean principles also would have us learn from artists about how best to connect their work with potential “consumers” and with the work of arts organizations. Tiny pockets of such work exist–artist-led galleries and ensembles for instance–but they are pretty rare.)

When I went to a Lean Enterprise Institute explanation of the concept of gemba I discovered a fascinating explanation of “how.” Managers are instructed to “Go See,” “Ask Why,” and (wait for it) “Show Respect.” There, in six words, is the essence of community engagement. (OK, we have to ask more than “why,” but it’s only six words after all.) The three tasks are also circular since, in our world, the motivation to “go see” needs to be preceded by having (developing?) respect for our communities.

I spent a good deal of the last quarter of last year hammering home the point that the work of the arts industry needs to be focused not on the art we deliver but on the people for whom the art is to have meaning. I often break out in hives when people tell nonprofits to be “more like a business,” but in this case, there is a good reason to adopt a “Lean” way of thinking/doing. This is a fine thought with which to begin the New Year. Happy 2014.



Image source: http://www.resourcesystemsconsulting.com/blog/gemba/

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