Lean in new employee orientation – gemba orientation

The company I work for recently hired a new CFO, and I was asked to give him orientation training on his very first day. HR department had a meeting room lined up, and everything was good to go for a couple of weeks inside a small room meeting all the top management and joining the club.

Yet, I felt uneasy about what was to come. I felt that the infinite loop of figures, reports, and meetings with top management could not possible prepare anyone for the work ahead. So, I turned to the Lean principles in search of a better way, and quite soon an idea came to me. It’s all about the gemba!

Gemba orientation

Gemba means the place where the actual work is done, and it is one of the most central concepts of Lean. Go and see for yourself. Do not manage by reports, but instead manage through deep understanding of the work. I was going to take our new CFO to the gemba, not to walk around, but to purposefully go through our value stream in order to begin to understand the work being done on the very first day.

Our headquarters houses all the main functions with around 200 people working there. The actual number of people does not matter that much, what matters more is that there is convenient access to at least most parts of the value stream.

For example, the main functions to visit could look like this:

  • R&D
  • Sales
  • Engineering
  • Sourcing
  • Manufacturing
  • Logistics
  • Service

The order and focus can change depending on what the person being oriented is going to be doing and what their background is. For example, it can be useful to go to the shop floor first to touch and feel the actual product, and then start over at R&D.

So what is the difference between gemba orientation and just a regular introduction round? In gemba orientation, the purpose is not to meet and greet everyone, but instead to go through the value stream and see and learn what people are actually doing. The real beauty of it is that you can pick anyone from the relevant function to tell you what they are working on, you are not depending on any single person.

Gemba orientation is not disturbing the work of people either. Sure, you interrupt them a little, but the question for everyone is to describe in a few minutes what work task they are doing right now. While this is an interruption, people remain focused on their task at hand, which makes it easy for them to return to it. The tour guide needs to keep track of time and choose the focus areas where more time is available for discussion (either more in-depth or with more people).

I have done a couple of gemba orientations now, and so far I have learned that in my environment, it takes me one full day to go through the whole value stream. This should take place on the first day, so that it gives ground for reflection on the second day, if there are more traditional presentations that follow this orientation session. I am still thinking of ways to make the rest of orientation more focused on the gemba.

Benefits of gemba orientation

There are many benefits to doing a gemba orientation on the first working day:

  • The new employee gets to meet a bunch of people from across all functions. Sure, he does not get to spend a lot of time with them, but as the discussion revolves around actual work, he gets much more from it than from just a regular meet and greet. Gemba orientation is also a cross-functional ice-breaker to create contacts throughout the organization.
  • Should it ever happen that the tools are not ready yet, say because an IT department is late or any other reason, no tools are needed for gemba orientation. It is just discussion and adjusting to the new environment.
  • The new employee gets a vivid image of what exactly it takes for an idea to become a development project, and for a development project to become an actual product at the company. Being exposed to all functions also showcases how much work is actually done throughout the organization to turn ideas into reality.
  • The conversations held during gemba orientation give also the tour guide a good idea of what work is going on right now, how work has changed, and how people feel about it.
  • The discussions during gemba orientation, though brief, can also result in new ideas as a fresh perspective is offered on things by the new employee. Even just asking questions can result in a new look at what we are doing!
  • When considering company culture, in gemba orientation you can see and feel how people are actually going about their day, not just see a presentation on what might happen.

What is the difference between gemba orientation and a gemba walk?

I suppose a gemba orientation fits in with the widest possible interpretations of the famous Lean tool, gemba walk. We are going to the gemba, we have a clear purpose, and we are not just wandering around.

However, a gemba orientation does not include such thorough observation and interaction aimed at continuous improvement that I would consider part of the most used meaning of a gemba walk. Gemba orientation is more about the learning experience of the individual instead of improvement of the system. Improvement of the system can also happen during discussions, but that is not the main goal and this scratch is not deep enough to ensure that improvement is achieved.

Just do it and go outside the meeting room!

The most probable feedback you will get a few weeks after a gemba orientation is “It showed me a completely different perspective on the way this company works!

Is that a good or a bad thing? I suppose it depends on what you want the company to look like in the future. If you want to promote systems thinking and a deep understanding of how work is done, and use those to improve the company further, gemba orientation can be the eye-opener needed to get things started.

I have not tried gemba orientation outside new employee orientation, but maybe refresher courses would not hurt either!

Photo: New office by Phil Whitehouse (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.