Got a problem? Go to Gemba!

Got a problem? Go to Gemba!

“Hey, you got a problem!?” That’s what a guy once said to me in subway car in Chicago. It came off as more of a statement than a question. Realizing his suspension bridge to sanity was one cable short, I responded apprehensively with a dash of sarcasm. I leaned over and whispered, “Oh yea, you got time to hear them all?” He didn’t say another thing to me, but he kept a creepy, “Eye of Mordor” on me.

No one wants to hear about problems, but as a facility manager it is your job to solve them.

You get complaints from services performed by your facility maintenance companies. Maybe you have noticed excessive dust. Is it your air handling system, the remodel on the fourth floor or poor performance from janitorial? Cleaning services can make an easy target, but is the problem really that they are not performing to scope or is it something else?

Your utility bill is higher than you expected. Is it because after-hour plug loads are high or is it because your HVAC program is not automated, leading to heating and cooling in low to zero occupancy periods?

These are just a few examples of the problems you face daily. Regardless of the problem, solutions are rarely found behind a desk. Most often, solutions percolate closest to where the problem occurs.  Here is a simple step to find lasting solutions to all problems: “Go to Gemba”.

Gemba is a Japanese word meaning “the real place.” In business, Gemba means going to the place where value is created. In manufacturing, it is often referred to as going to the “shop floor.” However, Gemba shouldn’t be so narrowly defined. Gemba really is any place a problem is occurring.

For facility managers there are problems that require observation in space management, with building occupants, with chillers, capital projects all the way down to the janitorial. Cleaning services to capital projects is quite a range, but it is all the more reason why you should go to Gemba.

Gemba is not merely Management-by-Walking-Around (MBWA). Gemba requires a real curiosity for what is going on. It demands a purpose. Otherwise, you are wandering aimlessly or merely picking up on the superficial. To give Gemba a purpose, apply the following tips:

1. Define the Problem?

Before you go to Gemba, write a problem statement. This is often difficult. People underestimate how important this stage is, so they either skip it assuming they understand the problem or they attack problems with vague ideas like a soldier trying to use his shadow to strike the enemy. You may find yourself over generalizing (e.g., The facility’s energy bill is high). To avoid this, ask yourself the 5-W’s. These simple questions will help define your problem statement:

  • Who: Who does the problem affect?  Does it affect building occupants (environmental controls, janitorial services, lighting,), building owners (cost, risk etc..), facility maintenance companies (Elevators, HVAC systems etc..).
  • What: What is the extent of the problem (Departmental, system, customer, geographic etc..)? When: When does the problem occur?
  • Where: Where is the problem occurring?
  • Why: Why is it important to fix this?

I use a project charter when attacking a problem.  The project charter essentially takes you through the 5-W’s. Click here to download a sample project charter sheet.

2. Measure the problem

When you go to Gemba, you must be prepared to measure. Make a data collection plan. Do you need to record actions? Bring a clipboard.  Is time a factor?  Bring a stopwatch. As you carefully observe, take notes. In this step of Gemba, you are gathering data. Your goal is to capture the current reality like a video camera. No stopping to edit, no special lens, just let the digital tape roll.

Before you leave, sketch out a map of the current state of the process. Add your time, cost, and frequency measurements to the map so you can get a good picture of the current state. Then check for accuracy by showing your map to those team members who participate in the process.

Measuring will help you challenge your pre-conceived notions. How big is the problem? How often does occur? Does it really matter? All of these questions are answered through measuring.

There are lots of ways to measure. Order your data. For example, put them in frequency chart such as Pareto charts and histogram. Plot your data on a scatter chart. Look for variation. For example, look at how many complaints by type you are getting from janitorial. Cleaning services should have systems to capture this data. Use a control chart. For instance, plot the work orders from your facility maintenance companies to see how their work process behaves over time. A control chart will help you measure the natural variation in the process.

The next time someone says to you, “Hey, you got a problem!?” Take it as a question. In fact, go to where that problem occurs, and ask five questions: Who? What? When? Where and Why? Then measure what you observe. In doing so, you will really know if you have a problem, and you are more likely to solve it at the root. That is what Gemba is all about, but more importantly that is great facility management.


Marc Collings

Senior VP of Sales and Marketing at Varsity Facility Services
Marc Collings is Varsity's Vice President of Marketing for Varsity Facility Services. Marc oversees the company's growth, branding, positioning, customer support and analytics. In this role, he has positioned the company as a customer solutions leader for lowering cost and improving quality. He also led the company-wide rebranding and strategically positioned the company as a sustainability leader, serving on a committee for the EPA, obtaining the Ashkin Group award for sustainable leadership, leading Varsity's CIMS Green Building certification with honors, and developing Varsity's S.H.A.P.E. sustainability strategy, which improves service results along five dimensions: Safety, Health, Asset Preservation, Productivity and the Environment.

In 2011, Marc's team won the large company category, "Best in the Industry" marketing materials from the Building Service Contractor Association International (BSCAI). Marc also directs Varsity's proposal writing, sales process and tools development, marketing campaigns, corporate website SEO performance and customer support center.

Marc has spent his career developing strategic capabilities that enhance value to customers and the company. A Lean Sigma Green belt himself, he developed the company's Lean Sigma offering, providing an innovative solution to customers' need to lower cost while raising quality. He led the development of JanOPS, an industry-leading janitorial operating system, which brings standardization and service consistency to large campus and geographically disperse national accounts.

Prior to this position, Marc was responsible for strategic management at Varsity. He has initiated or directed multiple strategic technology initiatives, ranging from a corporate website, a corporate intranet, a web/smartphone based quality control system, a learning management system, a corporate content manager and knowledge wiki, deployment and customization, and an Android app which facilitates the GROW sales process he has developed.

Marc is the author of several leadership and management training manuals, field guides, marketing collateral and case studies. He speaks Portuguese and Spanish and holds a bachelor degree in English/Technical Writing and a Masters of Business Administration in Finance from Idaho State University. Marc enjoys mountain biking, skiing, fishing and golf. He is happily married, and he and his wife Victoria enjoy raising and spending time with their four children.

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