The following is mostly stolen from Don Reinertsen’s article “Going to Gemba”. But it is worth stealing! Thank you Don.
In lean methodology, the way to get enough knowledge about details is to “go to gemba”. This means going to where the action is: seeing it for yourself. This might be watching operatives on the factory floor or watching customers shopping or watching consumers using your product in the home.
For those unfamiliar with the phrase “go to gemba”, the Japanese word “gemba” refers to the location where an activity takes place, for example, the factory floor. Going to gemba is revered in lean manufacturing. Taiichi Ohno taught observation to new engineers. (Ohno was Toyota’s vice president of manufacturing and the genius behind the Toyota Production System.) He would make an engineer stand in the middle of a chalk circle and tell him to observe and take notes. Later he would return to see if the engineer had observed enough. Ohno believed that observation was the best way to understand what is happening. So going to gemba is about being there, and about observing rather than interfering.
But observation is not enough in environments where much of the important work is not visible. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman classifies the tendency to overweight the visible as a cognitive fallacy called, WYSIATI (What you see is all there is.) Kahneman points out that when we observe a situation, we construct a mental model based on its most salient features. Our confidence in this mental model is a function of the coherence of the model rather than the strength of the evidence that it is right. We will weight a small amount of consistent data much more heavily than a much larger amount of data that contains some noise. It almost never occurs to us that the data that we do not see might be important. Simply put, our brains are wired to think that what we observe is all that is going on.
Unfortunately, in many processes the most important information is not observable from your chalk circle. This is not news to companies where much of the work is a function of talent rather than process. Consider Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard of HP. Like Ohno, they believed it was critical to go to the place where the work was done. But they used an approach known as management by walking around, (MBWA). It sounds a lot like going to gemba, but it was quite different. In fact, the most important words in MBWA are “managing” and “walking” not standing in a chalk circle. You see, Bill and Dave, who were great design engineers, fully realized that the most important decisions made by design engineers could not be directly observed by merely visiting the workplace. So what did they do? They left the chalk circle. They learned what was going on through active interaction with the engineers. They asked questions. They collapsed status differences by chatting, creating low-risk ways for engineers to express concerns and feelings. They were collecting information, but they were also communicating their goals and values through interaction with the engineers. They did more than go to gemba. They shaped while listening.
Of course, as a designer, you are not “managing”. But you are “shaping”, and you need to “walk”. As you get into the detail, remember that sometimes you need to stand in your chalk circle and watch; at other times you need to interact, ask open ended questions and chat in a way that will reveal the hidden logic, assumptions, feelings and mental processes; at other times you need to communicate your goals and design principles as part of your shaping work. Maybe there is a new mnemonic here: OCQS – observe, chat, question, shape.