A strange word with an important meaning for leaders

If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I’m a “plant rat.” I love manufacturing and everything about it.

It’s real.

You can touch it and see it.

You can see raw material being transformed by employees into a final product.

Maybe that’s why I have spent more than 25 years leading manufacturing businesses.

Some of what it takes to run a manufacturing business isn’t 100% applicable to other businesses, but, there is one term from the world of Lean Manufacturing that is applicable to all businesses.

It comes from the Japanese and the word is Gemba.

Gemba is Japanese for “the real place.”

What does that mean?

It’s the place where value is added.

  • In manufacturing, it’s the shop floor
  • In a school, it’s the classroom
  • At a bank, it’s the teller windows
  • At a call center, it’s the call center floor

If you can’t figure out where that is in your business, in most cases, it’s where most of your employees are.

And, it’s likely not where management is. In fact, that’s the problem.

Too many leaders are sequestered in their offices or in meetings far from where the value is added, far away from where their people are.

Too many leaders are sequestered in their offices or in meetings far from where the value is added, far away from where their people are. Click To Tweet

Most leaders make decisions based on what they assume is happening in “the real place.”

Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer and the Father of the Toyota Production System, understood this. He knew leaders needed to understand what was happening in Gemba to make the right decisions.

And, I love this story!

To get his team to understand what was happening in Gemba, he would draw a circle on the manufacturing shop floor and tell young managers to stand there as long as 8 hours with a notebook.

Then he would ask them what they learned.

In every case, these engineers discovered problems that needed to be addressed. Real problems based on real observations!

Contrast this with the many managers who rarely venture out to where the magic happens.

We had an expression in the Navy which I love, “Expect what you inspect.”

Expect what you inspect. Click To Tweet

How can you know what’s happening if you haven’t seen it yourself? In other words, you need to get out of your office to see what’s really going on. I often say that “leadership is a people business” and you can’t understand the problems your people face if you’re locked up in your office.

So, get out there!

Go to Gemba and learn what is really going on in your organization. Your employees will appreciate it and you will gain a new perspective.

Deep Leadership Podcast

By the way, If you want to know more about Gemba and how it applies to your business, listen to the latest episode of my new podcastDeep Leadership.

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Leaders – It’s Not About You

Leadership is simple. It’s about influencing a group of people to accomplish a goal. The problem is most managers forget about the people, the goal, and their role in influencing others. In other words, they do everything except lead. Maybe this is the reason why 70% of employees are disengaged at work. The vast majority of workers are disconnected because most managers are also unplugged.

Most bosses are just too busy to lead. They are focused on their own work. They are going to meetings, working on reports, replying to e-mails, or checking off items on their to-do lists. These managers are simply too busy to get out of their office and truly engage with their teams. As a result, most employees hardly ever see their managers and rarely interact with them.

If you’re a leader, your actions have a profound effect on the lives and careers of the people working for you. Once you are given the responsibility to lead a team it’s no longer just about you, it’s about them. Great leaders understand this and go out of their way to get to know every employee they are responsible for.

These leaders understand that every interaction with an employee is a chance to lead. They engage in deep, meaningful conversations with their employees and do more listening than talking. Great leaders are sincerely interested in what each employee has to say. These leaders know that engaging with their teams is a critical part of their job.

How about you? Are you engaging with your team? Ask yourself these three questions:

  • Do you know your employees’ names, how long they’ve been with the company, and something about their lives outside of work?
  • Do you take time out of your daily schedule to visit your employees where they work?
  • Do you take time to thank employees, appreciate their contributions, and celebrate their successes?

Leaders – it’s not about you. When you are in charge, you have the watch. You are not only responsible for the results of the organization, but you are also responsible for your employees. Engaging with employees is an important part of your job, much more critical than answering a few e-mails.

Great leaders know that employees who are appreciated, respected, and supported will be more engaged and will always do more than expected.

Learn more about how to be a more effective leader in my new book, I have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following.

The Power of your Presence


Have you ever had one of those bosses who was never around? They worked in an office with the door closed, they never came to your work area or location, they spent all their time in meetings, or maybe didn’t even know your name? As an employee, it can be incredibly discouraging to have a disengaged boss.

The problem is that most leaders don’t understand the power of their presence. This is probably why, according to the State of the American Workplace report by Gallup, 70% of employees are disengaged with their company.

In an earlier article, called 10 Simple Ways to Become an Extraordinary Leader in 2015, I described 10 activities to become a better leader in the new year. Number one on that list was being present. Being present is exactly what it means. Employees need to see you and you need to see them.

So why is it important that employees interact with their boss on a regular basis? Let me suggest five simple reasons, especially in this time of decentralized offices and remote locations, why you need to be present as a leader.

You ensure proper communication. Robert Whipple has a great new article out called Face to Face that addresses this very issue. He refers to the old UCLA study that showed that only 7% of what is understood is from words, the rest comes from facial expressions and the tone of your voice. He suggests in a time of decentralized offices, an over-reliance on texts and e-mails will cause your communications to suffer. You must see your employees face to face to ensure your message is understood.

You see what is really going on. I wrote about this in an articled called 5 Lessons from the Shop Floor. The point of that article is that, as a leader, you need to get out of your office and go to where the value-added work is being done. Too many times, leaders make decisions based on what they think is going on. Unless you spend time with your employees, there will be a significant gap between reality and your assumptions on reality.

You learn new things. There is a rich and useful world of “tribal knowledge” to be discovered. The collective wisdom of your employees is incredible but you need to be present to learn about it. Your employees know what works and what doesn’t. They know where the real problems and opportunities are. Spending time with employees gives you a new perspective and can boost your improvement activities.

They see you as approachable. Every boss likes to say they are approachable but what do your actions tell your employees? Do you work with your office door shut? Do you walk through the office looking down at the floor? Demonstrate you are approachable by getting out of your office with the purpose of saying good morning to your employees. If you have remote employees, spend a week working at their location so they see you. The more approachable you appear, the more likely they will open up and talk to you.

They see you as part of the team. Too often, leaders think they are more important than their employees. The truth is that more value-added activity is occurring with your employees than you. You may be the coach, but they are on the field making it happen every day. By being present and showing respect to your employees, they see you as an important part of the team not just a name on the bottom of an e-mail.

They see you as the company. Whether you like it or not, your employees see you as the company. If you are distant and disengaged as a leader, how do you expect they will act towards the company? The truth is that frontline leaders trump CEOs when it comes to employee engagement. In a recent HBR survey, 73% of respondents said that frontline managers were vitally important to achieving a high level of employee engagement. If you want engaged employees, you need to be an engaged leader.

The fact that 70% of employees in the U.S. are disengaged at work tells me that, as leaders, we still have a lot of work to do to improve our leadership skills. One of the most important skills is simply being present. Too often, leaders are disconnected and disengaged. Being present ensures you are communicating properly, that you face reality and see what your employees see, that you learn more about what is really going on, that you become more approachable, that you are seen as part of the team, and that you foster an environment of employee engagement. Simply getting out of your office and spending time with your employees will make you a better leader.

So what do you think? Can the power of your presence change the level of employee engagement? Do you think we are too busy as leaders to spend time with our employees? Are there other ways to communicate with employees to increase engagement? Can webinars, video conferencing, and the use of the company intranet take the place of being present? Let me know what you think!