#Productivity the Gemba way

Gemba is a Japanese term and loosely translated means “the place where value is created”. Traditionally it has been applied to business processes and manufacturing to make them leaner, focussed and more robust. In this article, I will apply Gemba to Task Management and show how this approach can revolutionise personal productivity to provide routinely excellent results from normal working practices.

Steve Jobs famously said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. The inspiration behind much of this article came from Peter R. Scholtes Book, “The Leader’s Handbook”, and I take much of the wisdom Peter shared in his book and apply it in a new context. Instead of applying it to large scale manufacturing processes, I apply it to individual and team activities. Gemba forces a fundamental re-think of what we do, how we do it and how we identify and manifest improvement in our practices. It is systems thinking at a personal level and is capable of helping us to define, structure and execute work in a more productive way. I have structured this article around 4 areas,

  • Introduction to Gemba Practices
  • Gemba applied to Task management
  • Gemba Guidelines
  • Final words


Introduction to Gemba

Depending on where you look you will find slightly different translations of Gemba. “Gem”, translates as specific work and “Ba”, as the place. As mentioned above, these two seemingly ordinary words, when put together take on a near ethereal quality. It transforms into the place where the value(magic) happens.

Gemba in Japanese

In Peter R. Scholtes’ book he defines it with the following description,

“The critical resources and sequence of interdependent activities that add value to the customer”.

Gemba in this context is the processes that happen to inputs to provide the desired outputs for customers. One example of this is a factory making widgets. The inputs to the factory are raw materials, the factory does the manufacturing and the output, i.e., the best widgets ever, then ship to the customer.

Traditional Gemba model

Not everything used to create value is “Gemba”. In this example, not everyone in the factory is directly involved in making widgets. The factory has support staff, Finance, Logistics, HR etc. These provide services to the Gemba. We should keep this in mind also for Task management – not everything we do will be pure value for the customers. Some housekeeping is needed.

When Gemba is considered in isolation it can be seen as a series of processes that lends itself to systems analysis. You can create flow charts of the steps necessary to create the output for the customer. With the flowchart you can then consider various items,

  • Which steps can be removed
  • Which steps can be automated
  • Which steps add error


Peter’s philosophy was very much that with the right systems in place ordinary individuals can routinely product consistently extraordinary results. In terms of management and leadership literature this is quite a novel approach and it is one that I think can be applied to personal productivity, with a little tweaking. This is what we want to achieve at a personal level – routinely excellent productivity through our normal working practice.


First, let us change the definition of Gemba for the context of Task Management. I propose the following,

Task Management Gemba Definition


Let’s now consider this for Task Management and personal productivity.

Applying Gemba to Task Management

When we consider applying Gemba to our work, we should consider it in a holistic way,

  • Identifying the key tasks to focus on
  • Understanding how you go about your work
  • Having the services in place to support it
  • Executing it in the most effective way
  • Improving your work practice

Let’s take each of these points in turn.


Identifying the key tasks to focus on

This point should cause some soul searching and some questions like the following should arise,

“What am I getting paid for?”

“What do our customers want?”

“What is my role in this organisation?”

“Which project/objective should I be focused on?”

It is worth to take some time to ponder these questions. Not only will it help you to reaffirm in your own mind what you core areas of focus should be but it also helps address the fundamental question that we have every day – which task should I be doing now?

There are many ways to go about answering this and many people have written many different approaches. Some advocate setting priorities, tackling the most urgent tasks, creating importance/urgency matrices or simply doing whatever the loudest person is saying. My proposal for this is simply to revert back to the definition of the Task Management Gemba – which task adds greatest value towards fulfilling the objective?

The objective will be answered by the soul searching questions and the task under consideration would be one of the steps necessary to fulfill it.


Understanding how you go about your work

Gemba is all about the uncluttered and focused work. It is a very worthwhile exercise to sit down and examine closely how exactly you fill your work day and what steps you take to progress your work. If it lends itself to representation as a flowchart, all the better. Then you can start to examine some fundamental points about your work such as,

  • What work can be totally removed? If not adding value or if there is no output then why do it? Alternatively, can it be delegated so I can focus on the tasks where I can add value? Removing tasks completely is the greatest contribution to reducing workload.
  • Which steps can be automated? What repetitive tasks do I do that could be automated? Some examples may be automatic filtering of emails, use of Excel macros etc.
  • Can my tasks be standardized? If it is standardised you can apply the same consistent approaches every time, even automate the task.
  • Which tasks can be error proofed? Some tasks may require additional time because of errors detected or spending more time to check them. Which steps can be taken to reduce this?
  • How does each step contribute towards meeting the goal? This should always be at the forefront of one’s mind. The task should be adding value in moving towards the objective or supporting that activity.


Last point about doing Gemba work. It should have priority. In practice this is always a challenge as it falls under the important category as opposed to urgent. So, be disciplined and focussed on tackling the Big Frog Gemba activities.


Having the services in place to support it

As mentioned earlier in the article there is zero chance of 100% focussing on your Gemba activities. Inevitably there are some frivolous items, planning/organising work, meetings, essential coffee breaks and activities to support Gemba activities. Let me elaborate a couple of these,

Meetings: If you attend make sure they are either contributing towards your Gemba activities or someone else’s Gemba activities.

Planning/Organising work: With a large number of tasks, efficient task entry, organisation and extraction is critical. The last thing you want is to spend more time organising work than doing it! So, find a good system that suits you. You could do worse that applying David Allen’s Getting Things Done(GTD) approach.

Gemba support activities: Also a critical consideration for getting your work done. Not everything you do will be the proverbial “widget manufacturing”. Take care of the support needed for that which may be tasks from other people, skills you need to acquire for your core Gemba tasks or developing tools to make the Gemba tasks more efficient or automated.



Executing it in the most effective way

Achieving an objective is never a one step procedure and often we have multiple objectives. This is where an element of organisation needs to come into play to effectively store and distribute the tasks necessary to complete the objective. At a team or project level this may involve some sophisticated project management tools. At a personal level multiple approaches are also possible,

  • To do lists
  • Getting Things Done (GTD)
  • Variants of GTD
    • Simply Getting Things Done
  • Kanban

Whichever approach you use and whatever tools you use do not be afraid to tailor it to your needs. Everyone is different and having a unique approach is no bad thing. Finally, as Brian Tracy would say, walk in the footprints of others before making your own tracks.

Improving your work practice

In business speak one form of continual improvement is Plan – Do – Study – Act (PDSA). At a personal level also, to improve the execution of tasks several steps can be taken,

  1. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!
  2. Dedicate yourself to continual self-development. Some Gemba tasks may need specific skills which you may not have to execute them, so go learn them!
  3. From time to time, stop and review how your work is going. Remember, everything is felt in the Gemba so problems/issues will have symptoms. So, if things are not progressing, you feel disorganised or road blocks repeatedly come up, go back and re-examine your work flow.


Gemba Rules, Task Management style!

Peter devised a number of guidelines for how the Gemba should operate, totalling 20. I have applied a spin to these when used in a Task Management context. Not all of his 20 rules are appropriate in this context so in my case I have a mere 13 for consideration.

  1. Determine what your primary purpose is and what is needed to fulfill it.
  2. Focus on the core tasks that add value
  3. Have a good task system and fill it with valuable tasks
  4. Identify ways to make your work more efficient
  5. Always have a next action if the current task hits a road block
  6. Book your own time. Some tasks require focus
  7. Identify error prone tasks and methods to avoid these errors
  8. Standardize tasks to have standardized ways to do them
  9. Review your progress regularly
  10. Be dedicated to lifelong learning.
  11. Communicate, communicate, communicate. A must for good teamwork.
  12. Identify improvements in your work practice
  13. Value your team. Together you can accomplish great things.

So, that’s my lucky 13 guidelines for good Gemba practice.


Final words…

I hope this post on the Gemba way to productivity has been helpful and if so don’t be shy to drop me a comment[LINK]. Undoubtedly many of these ideas have been inspired by the work of Peter R. Scholtes and in researching this topic I note that he passed away in 2009. I can only say his wisdom lives on, and has certainly inspired my approach to working. Thanks Peter, let me dedicate this article to you and your work.

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