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Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Low-cost Approach to Management by Masaaki Imai

Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense, Low-cost Approach to Management by Masaaki Imai. (354 pages, McGraw-Hill, 1997)

(originally published by Booz & Company)

The subtitle of Gemba Kaizen, the sequel to the enormously influential management handbook Kaizen, tells it all: A Commonsense, Low-Cost Approach to Management. Masaaki Imai, the crusading proponent of kaizen and head of the Kaizen Institute in Japan, fills his follow-up work with exhausting detail — so exhausting, in fact, that only the most dedicated apostles of the theory will want to take up Gemba Kaizen.

This is not a work for the backyard hammock or the typical airless office of a line supervisor — the group it most arguably is aimed at. The reader needs an atrium library, some high-quality caffeine and a good stock of note paper and No. 2 pencils.

That said, Gemba Kaizen is not uninteresting. The influence of kaizen is pervasive in American industry, even though many American managers would not recognize the Japanese word. 

Kaizen basically means continuous improvement, an approach that has been adopted in hundreds of manufacturing settings in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Virtually anyone who has given a second's thought to managing companies in the last 15 years will recognize the underlying components of kaizen: total quality control over products and equipment, zero tolerance for defects, just-in-time production, a process orientation, a belief in the practical connections between executive policies and production arrangements, a belief in the value of employee input and a belief in the possibility of consensus decision-making.

In "Kaizen," Mr. Imai reduced much of his theory to an alphabet soup of insights: What needed most improvement in most businesses, he argued, was QCD, or Quality, Cost and Delivery. Organizations could use a PDCA/SDCA (plan-do-check-act/standardize-do-check-act) process to implement kaizen.

That tendency, continued in Gemba Kaizen, makes the text an intimidating murk of symbols. But the nut of the new book is the idea of "gemba," an almost mystical notion that does much to lift the impossible burden of assimilating all of Mr. Imai's abbreviations.

Roughly translated, gemba is where the action is. The author notes that reporters covering the earthquake in Kobe in 1995 would invariably say, "reporting from gemba" — reporting from the "real place," or the place of the moment.

In an industrial or corporate setting, gemba is the "place where products or services are formed." The idea is interesting because gemba is a spatial concept, not an idea used to organize activity, as most management theories are.

To demonstrate the use of space, Mr. Imai relates how he figured out why he had not received several important faxes at a certain hotel. Having grown increasingly irritated, he went down to the hotel lobby, or "gemba," as he called it. From there, he was in a central point where he could watch what the staff did when faxes came in. It soon became clear that there was no plan. Some employees put faxes on the counter. Some threw them into in-out boxes. Some did still other things. There was no standard to guide the task. The result was a high degree of aggravation to the consumer — who happened to be Mr. Imai.

The example says a great deal about the level of detail in Gemba Kaizen. By itself, continuous improvement requires a daily attention to protocols. One of the several examples in the book, from Fidelity, the mutual fund giant, outlines the firm's Strides strategy:

S — Situation: "Where are we now?"
T — Target: "Where do we want to be?"
R — Research: "What research do we need?"
I — Implementation: "What is our plan?"
D — Do it! "Let's do it!"
E — Evaluate: "What's working? What's not?"
S — Standardize: "How will we standardize?"

If indeed such an inventory of questions were processed by every employee every day, it's hard to imagine that company management, hence profitability, would not improve. No manager would even need the gemba concept.

But gemba does have the effect of shifting attention from individual employees to the workplace and thus looking at the spatial arrangements that impose limitations on productivity improvements. American companies tend to regard space as incidental, except perhaps as it reflects hierarchy and power. Most American executives would say the real business of business takes place in the executive suite. The factory floor simply executes the plan.

Gemba Kaizen offers an alternative to that analysis. Mr. Imai would probably say he could walk the floor or office complex of any American company and discern where the real action is — the flattening of the humps that services must get over to provide genuine customer satisfaction, or the moment in the manufacturing process when it is clear a quality product will roll off the assembly line.

Gemba seems a little like Justice Stewart and his definition of pornography: you know it when you see it. But if you can recognize where the action is gemba — on the shop floor or in the executive suite, you can most likely turn it to your company's advantage. For that, Mr. Imai's book can certainly help.

Barbara Presley Noble, the former At Work and Business Book Review columnist for The New York Times, has an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in business and economic journalism at Columbia.
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