Humility at the gemba

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Western Sensei Consulting, Inc.-president,

I recall visiting the NUMMI plant in Fremont California, the joint venture between Toyota and General Motors, prior to its closing. Two colleagues and I had the privilege of receiving a private tour. The general manager for each process within the plant gave us a tour through their area of responsibility and we finished by meeting with the President of NUMMI for about an hour. I asked him what he does when he goes out to the shop floor (gemba). Part of his answer was "I keep my eyes low and I pick up trash." He was of course describing humility.

I also had the privilege of working closely with one of the best, if not the best, and most humble leaders that I know. Gaurdie Banister was the President and CEO of Aera Energy LLC. Gaurdie took the time to acknowledge everybody he passed in the hallway, he made time to talk to anybody who wanted to talk to him, he asked for and genuinely wanted people's opinions and ideas, he was a very strong advocate of inclusion and diversity, and he spent a lot of time at the gemba. I once asked him what he thought was the most important thing that leaders should be doing at the gemba and he said there were two things; first, make sure that people are safe. Anybody who knows Gaurdie won't be surprised by that answer. Secondly, always be teachable. He was of course describing humility.

Most of us are likely familiar with Fujio Cho, Toyota’s Chairman of the Board  from June 2006 to June 2013 and currently Honorary Chairman. His admonition to "Go see, ask why, and show respect" is memorable. Mr. Cho was also, of course, describing humility. The antithesis of Mr. Cho's admonition would be to "sit in your office, tell people what to do, and make sure they know that you are the boss!"

Humility is an observable behavior. The examples given above describe some of the behaviors of humble leaders, but they just scratch the surface. Think about how you show up at the gemba, do you demonstrate genuine humility? Has your leadership team taken the time to discuss ideal leadership behaviors? Is humility one of those behaviors? If yes, how does humility show up in your organization? What are the observable behaviors I would look for as I walked through and observed the leaders at your gemba?

So, get your boots on, go to the gemba with genuine humility, be teachable, and see what you can learn today.