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When Gemba met Coaching – Can two approaches blend together and still love each other in the morning

Like “When Harry Met Sally”, Gemba and Coaching are two powerful development tools that are destined to be together, but the question is how do we make it a relationship made in heaven that endures the test of time, rather than simply a one-night stand?

Gemba – The Place Where Value is Created

Let’s first introduce ‘Gemba’! Gemba is a Japanese word that means “the actual place” or as it has become known in the world of workplace development and improvement – “the place where the value is created”.

For many years when I have introduced Gemba to team leaders and managers I have encouraged them to ‘go to the Gemba’. This involves them getting up and out of their offices, stretching their legs and doing the “Gemba walk”. The Gemba walk is focused on talking to their team members, about what is going well and what is going not so well. The conversation might be as broad as it can be deep. But fundamentally Gemba is about talking to people – and listening, actively listening, to what they want to say. I talk with team leaders and managers about how, using the Gemba walk, they are able to learn to feel the heartbeat of the organisation. Importantly, it is about noticing when that heartbeat is beating strong and in flow. And also when the beat is ‘off’. Then, it is about being able to identify this ‘offness’ and focus on becoming part of the solution.  Realistically this alone, is not enough. The heartbeat not only has to keep the beat but also should strive to be consistently strong and resilient.

Unlocking People’s Potential

Coaching is about ‘unlocking people’s potential to maximise their own performance’. In the words of Whitmore, ‘coaching is more often helping them to learn rather than teaching them’. If normal daily management is about incremental improvement – we should be aiming for improvement in every process and working practice, every day. If the most important work is done at the Gemba then surely the most important coaching should be done there as well? Coaching conversations need to take place at the Gemba so they can help to unlock people’s improvement capability thus creating a culture of continuous improvement.

Coaching at the Gemba has a purpose. It is about creating ownership. About creating the opportunity for people to figure things out for themselves, to develop their skills in improvement and to build the habit of continuously improving what they do. But it is also about the manager learning to implement a coaching and mentoring style – a style that can guide and support their staff not through the improvement itself but through learning the improvement ‘kata’ (the Japanese for learning a habit).

The Continuous Improvement Habit

So how do you go from where you are now to becoming an improvement kata coach? Start with a plan. Gemba walks don’t just happen by chance. They are planned and deliberate; they are regular activities, and they have purpose. You are there to understand where things are currently and where things need to be. This enables you to work with the team to identify and to manage any gap effectively. This gives you a good starting point for the coaching conversation to begin. Remember though you are there to guide, not to offer advice, nor to solve the problem for them, and not to demand that things be fixed.

One tried and tested way of approaching this is to start by asking your coachee to complete a vague project. Then ask them to bring you a proposal (a bullet pointed list not War and Peace) on what they think needs to be done to move this project forward. This gives you a good idea of the way in which your coachee is thinking. Then either ask for more thought around their ideas or simply ask why? This starts to tell you what they need to learn. You complete a number of iterations of this, narrowing down the thinking until you both have a good understanding of the current situation and options available. Then agree the targeted next step/s. It is important that these steps are their solution not yours! Therefore, the way forward is owned by the coachee. You need to be prepared to let them make mistakes and you need to be there to make sure learning comes from those mistakes.

By adopting a coaching approach at the Gemba you are regularly having the right conversations in the right place. You are using your own improvement kata to teach others and to create a culture of continuous improvement.

So, as with “When Harry Met Sally” it is inevitable that Gemba and Coaching will come together. However, like the relationship in the film it could be a bumpy ride! They may only meet on occasion and that is not enough to sustain a continuous improvement culture. Once managers learn to adopt a coaching style and to use that every day at the Gemba only then can a true continuous improvement relationship be realised.

This chat seeks to explore insights on coaching and Gemba. We aim to achieve this through the following questions:

  1. How can we promote coaching as a daily behaviour rather than a tool that is take out when needed? What are the barriers to coaching in organisations?
  2. What habits do you bring to your workplace to help create a culture of continuous improvement? Do managers in your organisation go to the Gemba? What behaviours do they exhibit when they do? How can we promote the right behaviours?
  3. The famous line from When Harry Met Sally is “I’ll have what she’s having”! How do we create a momentum that sees managers wanting to coach at the Gemba and coachees wanting to be coached
  4. What other improvement or change activities could benefit from a coaching approach? How would a coaching approach help?


This blog was written by Christine Stewart and Lorna Prince.

Christine has worked in the manufacturing, finance, and higher education sectors as a continuous improvement specialist for over 25 years. For the last 4 years Christine has been using her knowledge and experience of people, process, and purpose to provide advice, facilitation and training to companies and institutions.

Lorna is a professional, experienced Organisation Development practitioner with over 30 years’ experience supporting leaders and managers within both the commercial, not-for-profit and the education sectors. Lorna is a qualified change manager, psychometric assessor, and qualified/experienced coach.