Gemba in IT – Visualising Your Work

Gemba is a Japanese term that is literally translated as the real place. Often in Lean management you will hear the term of “going to gemba”, which is to go to the real place of work where the work is done and value is being created. This is in contrast to reading a report about the work, hearing from someone else about it or even assuming how things are working.  How can you go to the Gemba in Information Technology?

Lean management came from the Toyota Production System which was based in the factory. So in this case, going to the gemba would be going to the production line and watching work flow, inventory piling up or machines breaking down. If you are knowledgeable about the work and have a good understanding of how things work then you will be able to see where you can improve processes by going to the gemba. It is not about seeing how fast the hands of staff are moving, but it is about seeing the process and removing wasteful tasks.
How can you apply this to software development? If you go and observe a software development team you will see a number of people sitting and working, but you would struggle to see if they are working on the right things or on anything at all. All the work is complex and invisible. So should you just continue to sit in your nice office and get your fancy reports? Well, if you do this, it is unlikely that the reports will be accurate and of any real value. Masaaki Imai, one of the gurus in Lean, wrote “The worst thing a manager can do is live in a world isolated from gemba”. Start simply by having your workplace located among the workers. Even if you cannot understand the work you will start to see other issues such as the availability of physical supplies; staff complaining about unnecessary meetings or even simple things like the coffee room being too small and causing queues.
But what about the real work, the value added work? For you to be able to see this you need to understand it and it needs to be visible. The majority of work, even complicated work, follows a process, so having this work explicit, then mapping and tracking it visibly through its processes would be a great help. Then you would be able to envisage bottlenecks, defects, and rework and whether or not staff are working on too many things/stages at a time or even seeing a lack in some of the stages. This will enable you to update the processes and track whether these changes have improved results. There are different methods to make work visible. A common practice is to map a process on a whiteboard and have work moved through this process with sticky notes. There are also software tools available that help to visualise the work and reduce the administrative tasks of manually tracking work. I have shown an example of one below.

Gemba in IT - Visual display
We at LeanIT focus on implementing solutions that enable you to see and improve. So if you are interested in making your invisible work visible so that you can make improvements, please contact us. We can show you how you can go to Gemba in IT.