Friday, April 24, 2009

Gemba v. Maya

Lean management consultants who specialize in the Toyota Way always say, "Go to Gemba." Gemba is the real place, the here and now, where life actually happens. The reason that we must go to Gemba is because, if--as managers--we rely upon computerized databases or abstract reports, we can never be sure that we actually know what is happening. Regardless of the millions, or hundreds of millions of dollars lavished upon information technology, the information contained by systems of hardware and software is by definition out of date--by at least the speed of light, and frequently much, much longer. The world of symbolic knowledge, the world of words, numbers, bits, and bytes is inherently incomplete. Symbols after all can only signify. They cannot also be the real things to which they refer. At least they cannot be the only things; otherwise language and numbers are pointless.

So, we must go to Gemba and make direct observations for ourselves in, as we say, real time.

The distinction between Gemba and Maya, the world of symbolic knowledge, is rather a Buddhist idea. Buddhist philosophy distinguishes between the absolute reality of Sunyata, nothingness, or the void, on the one hand, and the relative reality of Maya, on the other hand. Maya is often translated as "illusion." The Sanskrit root of the word Maya means to measure. Thus, Maya is measured reality, that is, the reality of words and numbers that organize the onslaught of experience into things separated in spacetime and distinguished by differences such as form and color and number.

Like good Buddhists, lean management consultants do not deny the practical importance of Maya, that is, of databases and reports. The abstract information contained in databases and reports is, however, ultimately untrue when compared to Gemba. And so to Gemba we must go, to refresh our knowledge of what is real.

Why bother with Buddhist philosophy on a blog about lean management? Because, it takes us deep into to the heart of Toyota's Way. If, as managers, we must go to Gemba to know the real, what happens when we return to Maya, as we must? Surely things will fall apart when we take our eye off the ball, so to speak. We will lose control. That is, unless we rely upon our people to be in Gemba themselves. In other words, we must decentralize decision-making, radically, to ensure that decisions can be made in Gemba, in real time, based upon direct observation of the process. So it is that Toyota's production workers or nurses at the Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle can "stop the line" whenever a process defect occurs. No one else is there to observe the problem; and no one else can take more rapid action to prevent the problem from causing more harm.

The need to decentralize in order to control places management in a strange new role. We are of a piece. We are a system. Thus to function better as a system, we must raise the level of all participants in the system. We must train everyone to go to Gemba, to "be here now," to distinguish between what is real and what is not real. As the Buddhists say, "None of us is free until all of us are free."

Tom Jackson
Martinez, California

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