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The antithesis of Gemba

This morning was 14 degrees Fahrenheit, yet the sun showed off its superpower by making the recent 4 inches of snow sparkle in every direction. On my way to the coffee shop to do my morning writing therapy, I correlated that there was enough sun to dare a few local runners to accompany their run with some shorts. I felt the sun hug my bald head as I stepped out of my truck and began my penguin walk to the coffee shop. However, as my route took me through a moment of shade, it instantly became damn cold. My penguin walk became more like an amateur speed skater sliding in the coffee shop. 

It's cold in there

Most of the manufacturing facilities I have worked in are under a roof. The production occurs in areas typically withdrawn from the harshness of rain, sleet, snow, or our sun, strong arming infrastructure to beg for mercy. These roofs remove you from the physical contact of mother nature’s elements, but they typically do not immune you from the intensity of the temperature. An extremely hot or cold day in a building that is not temperature-controlled can be miserable, yet it cannot deter the men and women on the shop floor from doing their jobs.

The dangers of being known to stay in the office

During the days of the year when the temperatures are in these extremes, the staff departments remain cozy inside their temperature-controlled cubicles or are encouraged to work from home. You may hear them commenting about the temperature outside in a tone that is grateful that they have a job that does not require them to perform their skill beyond the reach of their thermostat.

All [Gemba] walks should help the leader learn what is really happening and at the same time focus on helping people to maintain their dignity. This can only happen if the leaders create a safe place to have a conversation, and they show respect to the people they encounter along the way. Why would anyone openly discuss problems in their work area if he or she will be embarrassed once workplace issues are revealed, or if the walker looks as if he or she is trying to catch someone doing something wrong? Michael Bremer, How to Do a Gemba Walk: A Leaders Guide

A staff department can become more isolated during these times because they will find ways to avoid going to the shop floor. The dangers of this isolation become more evident when a regularly scheduled meeting gets moved to a conference room in an administration building or gets modified from in-person to a video call. You may see them avoiding housekeeping audits or changing the location of a 1:1 to a nice 70-degree conference room in an administration building versus a production pulpit. This is the antithesis of operational empathy. This is the inverse of a Gemba (現場), where you are supposed to go and see. This is Gemba to the power of negative 1. This is Gemba-1.

The inverse of Gemba

The pitfalls of a culture that conducts Gemba-1 can leave scars and cultural damage for years. If you catch yourself in a staff role, commenting on how extremely cold or hot it is outside, immediately get up and go for a walk. Go and see the team on the shop floor and embrace their working condition. Accompany a cold bottle of water with a smile on a hot day as you see how their day is going. Hand out individual bags of hot chocolate when it is cold while thanking them for their hard work, commitment to safety, and dedication to hitting the month's production quotas. If they can bear the temperature for an entire shift, at minimum, you can find a few pocket warmers and meet them in their work environment. 

Operational empathy

Operational empathy is the constant reminder that the men and women on the shop floor tangibly produce the products sold, receive the phone calls on Friday afternoon that the production unit is down unplanned, and have to mobilize all attention when a safety incident occurs. Not lessening the responsibilities of the staff or administration departments, but there are typically very few events that can instantly change what they are doing for the next 12 hours. So if you see a staff person bearing the cold temperatures to greet you on the shop floor, thank them. Thank them for coming to you and embracing your work environment. If you find yourself saying, damn it is cold outside in the line of sight of a thermostat, grab a handful of instant hot cocoa bags and go for a walk. Gemba.

Note - Wix, which is where I blog, cannot do superscript or subscript currently. Gemba-1 was intended to be Gemba to the power of negative one, to denote the inverse of a Gemba.


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