The gemba is where all your problems are occuring. If you really want continuous, sustained improvement, go see the action.
A foundational principle of lean thinking, the Japanese word gemba translates to 'the real place'. The word is interesting. The idea is simple. The implications are enormous.
Basically, it means "get out", "get engaged with your employees", "observe", "ask questions", "find out what's really going on".
Why is this one of the key problem-solving activities?
Because unless you are assessing, you're guessing. Most assessments available away from the work are outcome measures. Things like finances, customer satisfaction, or product returns cannot be influenced without understanding the system that created them.
The problem defintion is very important. Nothing should be left to chance or assumption.
And, conversations with employees in their environment lay the foundation for future involvement in finding a solution.
How do you "go to the gemba"?
If you or your employees are not used to seeing you, be prepared for it to be a little awkward at first. In businesses where managers are not consistently interacting with employees, the first couple times may cause people to wonder what's going on.
A couple tips to make the transition toward visible management easier include:
Don't do anything without a goal in mind. In this case, the goal is to develop a trusting relationship that will lead to openness. If you start to hear about problems you didn't know existed, you are on the right track.
As a manager or business owner, the last thing you want are hidden problems. You can't provide leadership to fix something you don't know about. The people doing the work know the problems. Encourage them to tell you by going to the them.