The Gemba Speaks, If You Listen

Recently on a ‘Gemba’ walk during my first visit to the facility, the managers lamented about the production boards and 5S. I listened! As we moved to the second area, I started asking questions about the process flow, status of production at that moment, and the course of action for an immediate countermeasure. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? Yet, the managers could not answer the questions. Isn’t it interesting that after all these years, advances in lean thinking, numerous publications and conferences, that this scenario is still all too familiar?

As I reflected, I came back to the yet ever-present and strong emphasis on implementing tools without understanding. After moving to the third area, I stopped asking questions about the process, and started asking questions about their thinking, purpose and understanding. As they looked at me puzzled, I told them, that the Gemba will speak to you, if you are willing to listen.

The Power of Asking!
5 Whys is a powerful concept when it is understood. Unfortunately, most don’t really understand the principle, and supporting answers with data. The focus seems to get lost in providing an answer or questioning is 5 really the right number. And more importantly, many don’t understand when to use the 5 Whys.

When coaching leaders, I prefer to asking Socratic questions to help them think about situations on a deeper level. When a learning opportunity is presented, I typically start by asking:

  • So What?
  • Why Should You Care?
  • Should You Take Action?

Here is a scenario played out.
During the Gemba walk with the managers, we approached a work area where the machines were running, but the production board status was red and the material squares on the floor were empty. I said, the square is empty. Is the visual control working? The response was I don’t know. I can’t tell. As the managers started looking around for the team lead, I asked them to pause, and think about the system and questions about the system, not the square being empty. So to get their attention, I said, “the square is empty, So What?”

By asking the manager to consider, ‘So What’ first, I wanted him to understand if the system was working, broken or needed improving. What was the system telling the manager? In other words, as the manager, he should not need to get involved with material issues or production status, given there is a team leader and a waterspider. But he should get involved in system issues. To contrast, had I asked Why the space was empty, it may have led us on a wild goose hunt. I first want to the manager to understand if the system is working. If he were to engage in the 5 Whys, I would want him to engage in questioning for the system.

Secondly, I asked him to consider ‘Why Should I/You Care’? This question was meant for him to consider if the system was working as designed (clearly not in this case), who or what action should be taken, and by whom. The space was empty, how do you know the condition is abnormal? At what point will action be taken to ensure the equipment will not be waiting? How is the system designed to respond? When he didn’t have an answer. I followed with the third question, Should I/You Take Action?

The last question coaches the leader to think about separating the fire-fighting and hero mentality to becoming a teacher and coach. I am certain had he jumped into motion, the situation would have been rectified. However, had that been the case, we would have lost the opportunity to learn and observe. I’m sure you can imagine the difficult position of this manager, with a visitor poking in his sandbox. Furthermore, I wanted to understand what he was thinking in terms of what his action should be. What is the improvement opportunity?

As I’ve stated, I really appreciate and respect the 5 Whys concept. However, I have learned when coaching that I have to sometimes rethink the approach so that people don’t get stuck in the technique. Give these three questions a try. I would love to hear about your experience.

Crystal Davis, founder of The Lean Coach, Inc. is an experienced business management consultant and leadership development coach with over twenty years of experience in the design, development, and implementation of Lean Business System solutions. She has accumulated extensive domestic and international expertise in the design and implementation of solutions for automotive, healthcare equipment manufacturing, and consumer packaged industries. Crystal has assisted clients in formulating comprehensive business and logistics strategies and in re-engineering distribution and manufacturing operations to reduce costs, improve customer service and drive revenue.



  1. Michael Bremer says
    October 16, 2015 10:28 am

    I agree with your sequence. When people reference Gemba Walks, they often jump right to the 5 Why’s. When we wrote “How to Do a Gemba Walk” (e-book) we emphasized the importance of starting with “What.” It is also important for the questioner to get a deeper understanding of what is going-on, before probing more deeply. Very good blog post on this subject. Feel free to connect with me on Linked-In if you have an interest.
    Best wishes,

    • Crystal Davis says
      October 22, 2015 11:30 am

      Michael thank you for the feedback. I couldn’t agree more. I look forward to connecting on LinkedIn.
      Crystal Davis

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