by Karyn Ross

Going to gemba, (the place where the actual work for customers is completed) or ‘going to see’ as it’s often referred to, is one of the foundational practices of lean. Going to see is the basis for understanding what is currently happening in a process, what problems are occurring and why they are occurring, so it’s easy to see how it’s part of the ‘continuous improvement’ pillar of lean.

Going to see is also an important part of the ‘respect for people’ pillar, because when leaders go and see, they can gain a deeper understanding not just about people’s work, but about how people are feeling, how they are doing, and what they need help with, both as employees, and as whole human beings. In Chapter 29 of Workplace Management, Become a Reliable Boss, Taiichi Ohno gives an important clue about how to go and see: “If you are out there observing at the gemba, do something for them. If you do, the workers will think, ‘He’s watching us, but he comes up with some good ideas.’ That way, when the workers see you, they will look forward to your help again, and as a result, they will begin telling you what makes the work hard to do and ask you to think of ways to make it better.” (1). As you can see, looking for ways to actually help those doing the work is an extremely important part of going to see.

Which brings us to kindness. In my forthcoming book, The Kind Leader: A Practical Guide to Eliminating Fear, Creating Trust and Leading with Kindness, I define kindness as “an action (or set of actions), connecting a person’s internal feelings of empathy and compassion to others that is undertaken with the purpose of generating a positive effect and outcome for another” (2). In order to go and see kindly, then, just as Taiichi Ohno describes, the person going to see needs to go to look for ways to make things better for others.

Here are some practical ways for you to make sure that you are going to see, not just to continuously improve the work being done, but to respect people by kindly helping them!

Go to see regularly! Your people are the most important part of your work as a leader. When you go to see regularly, people get used to you being there! You will build a real relationship with them and instead of feeling fearful when they see you in their space, thinking that you are only coming around to check on the end results of the work they are doing, they will look forward to you stopping by, checking in with them as human beings and helping to make things easier and better!

Go to where the people are doing their work. Get out of your office and the conference room. When people are called into your office, they may feel like they are going to the principal’s office! When you sit behind your desk, and someone sits on the other side, the power differential is highlighted and there’s a barrier between you and the person you are going to see. Instead, step into the person’s cubicle and pull up a chair so that you are on their level! Spend time watching people do their work. Ask them open-ended questions about the process: What’s difficult for them to do? What makes them want to bang their head on the desk and go ‘Aaarrrrggghhh’ like a pirate (as I always say)? And then figure out a way that you can help make their work easier!

Ask about people’s family and friends. Get to know people as people. Getting to know people as whole human beings builds trust. Sometimes people think that if they don’t know someone well, they shouldn’t ask about their life outside of work. I believe the opposite. If you don’t ask someone about their life outside of work, how are you going to get to know them…and they you? Tell them about your life outside of work too. When people know and trust you, they will share the things that are difficult for them. Then you can figure out how to help them.

Spend time. Don’t rush. Pay attention. Shut your computer. Turn off your cell phone or put it in your pocket. Give the person you are going to see your undivided attention. Remember, the time that you are spending with them is about them, their process and their needs, not about you and your needs. As a leader, people know that your time is valuable. When you spend time with people and give them your undivided attention, they know that you feel that they, and their time, are just as valued!

Watch your body language and tone of voice. And theirs! Communication is a two-way street. And it’s not just words that convey what we are thinking and feeling. Most meaning is conveyed by body language and tone of voice. So, make sure that yours is kind. Even if you are angry or frustrated, don’t shout. Don’t ‘point fingers’ or literally ‘get in someone’s face’. Those behaviors don’t create trust. They induce fear. And if people are fearful, they likely won’t be open to pointing out problems or showing you what is difficult in their work. And make sure that you are watching and listening carefully to the body language and tone of voice of the person you going to see. If you don’t think that their words and actions match, or if you see and hear fear, make sure to kindly ask what’s wrong so that you can help.

As you can see, although it’s often assumed that going to see, in itself, is kind, it isn’t. In fact, going to see can be done in very unkind ways:

Going to see only when you know something is wrong and you are looking for a person to blame.

•Setting up systems to ‘catch people doing something wrong’ and then punishing them when you do.

•Not giving the person you’re going to see your full attention and checking devices or stepping away to take a call during your visit.

•Only checking on ends/results and not checking in with people, as people, and the process they are following.

•Seeing and hearing people describe difficulties and problems in their work, and not helping them to find a solution.

Before you go and see, take a few minutes to reflect on whether you are going for the right (and kind) reasons, and not those above. If you aren’t, then don’t go. If you are, then take a few minutes to prepare yourself to go and see kindly.

Many people ask me if lean is kind. And I always answer them the same way: “Lean isn’t kind or not kind. It’s a thing. Things aren’t kind or not kind. People are.” So, next time you go and see, please remember, as one person going to see another, please do it kindly. When you do, you’ll eliminate fear, so that people can bring problems to your attention, and create better, trusting relationships, so that the work people do can become easier.

(1) Taiichi Ohno, Workplace Management, 2007 Gemba Press, p. 95.

(2) Karyn Ross, The Kind Leader: A Practical Guide to Eliminating Fear, Creating Trust and Leading with Kindness, Forthcoming September 2021, Productivity Press, p. 6.


Want to learn more about how Lean and Kindness go together? Twice a year, in August and February, theleanmag will highlight the connection between lean principles, practices and tools and kindness. The Kindness Korner, written by Karyn Ross, author of The Kind Leader, How to Coach for Creativity and Service Excellence, and co-author of The Toyota Way to Service Excellence, will give you practical ways to infuse Continuous Improvement, Respect for People, and your personal lean leadership with kindness.

Deepen your understanding and practice of Kind Leadership by following The New School for Kind Leaders:

For more on practicing kindness:

To connect with Karyn:

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