Power to the People: The Perks of Decentralization

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Today I would like to write about Gemba – another concept in Lean Management, which can easily be applied to a broader context. Literally, the Japanese term Gemba translates to the actual place. In a production environment, this usually refers to the shop floor. Here, the idea is that problems can best be solved by the people working in the process concerned. More specifically, this means that shop floor workers rather than external consultants or the management should address issues on the shop floor.

However, I firmly believe that this concept can also be applied much more broadly. One case that stuck with me appears in the book Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth: In chapter 5 (“Design to Distribute”), she mentions an example of irrigation schemes for Nepalese rice paddies. A study compared state-run irrigation systems with systems set up by the farmers themselves. Interestingly, it found that although the farmers’ systems were much simpler than the ones set up by the state, they were kept in better repair, distributed water more fairly and were more efficient.

If you think about it, it becomes quite clear why the results turned out as they did: Of course the rice farmers have worked in these rice paddies for years or even decades. With their experience, it is much easier for them to design an efficient irrigation system. Also, we shouldn’t neglect the influence of the community: Within a group, people will immediately recognize free riders or members who try to jeopardize the group efforts. At the same time, the group will know who needs support e. g. in case of force majeure or issues in the private realm.

This idea of Gemba – letting the people working in the area concerned come up with the solutions – can be applied to a large variety of fields. As a starting point, organizations should give sufficient authority to employees setting up a new or improved process – without management altering the results afterward. Within a broader context, this would lead to entirely new forms of organizations. One approach is to have companies being co-owned by the workers, giving them both the power and money resulting from their work – rather than mostly rewarding investors (who had no part in the work).

In Lean Management, this idea of Gemba is usually connected to some form of knowledge sharing. Although the workers know their process best, their limited view might narrow their potential for improvement. However, if there is a regular exchange with other groups dealing with similar problems, they may learn from each other and improve significantly. This idea also works on a global scale: The internet allows us to learn from each other across industries and country borders.

Work locally – share knowledge globally

By the way, in a decentralized world, there is much less need for traveling. There is less need to “control” people on site and knowledge can often be shared virtually. This benefits the environment and increases the time those traveling can spend thinking about more important things. That’s another advantage of giving more authority to local communities and departments!

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