The role of Gemba in product innovation

Written by: Eureka! | Published:
Adrian Swinburne, head of consumer, 42 Technology

How ‘going to Gemba’ is essential to helping consultancies understand the constraints and capabilities of projects to design new products.

Engineering and product design consultancies are frequently asked by clients to help improve their existing manufacturing processes, to develop new processes, or to design new products or product variants.

Often the new product project briefs include one important proviso: that any new products must be compatible with the client’s existing high-value manufacturing equipment with minimal further capex. While this might sound like an almost immovable barrier to innovation, a company’s existing manufacturing assets can actually be used as a potent catalyst to help fuel the innovation process itself.

Spending time in the factory, or ‘going to Gemba’, should be an essential first step in helping the project team to fully understand the capabilities and limitations of the existing production line before generating any new ideas.

Gemba – ‘the place where value is created’ – is a key component within lean manufacturing, and it can play an equally important role driving product and process innovations.The factory is an obvious focal point and involving its engineering team from the start ensures that it becomes a vital part of the innovation environment rather than being isolated from it.

It largely goes without saying that to deliver the best possible outcome the innovation team needs to contain, or at least have access to, the right blend of creative and practical engineering skills.But combining them into a single entity with a common purpose can be particularly challenging.

The individuals often have different priorities and motivations – for example, product designers think differently from process engineers – and they typically exist in different parts of an organisation, possibly working for a client’s original process equipment suppliers, or have been specifically brought in from external consultancies.However, Gemba can play an important role here too: to help promote empathy and a shared vision, and to unlock the full potential of a multi-disciplinary team.

In a recent example, 42 Technology was briefed by a personal care product company to develop a more premium version of one of its successful but commoditised existing products.The new product needed to be manufacturable on existing assets, which necessitated the project team ‘going to Gemba’ and resulted in the consultancy being able to propose a series of new concepts each with a robust assessment of how it could be realised with minimal modification to the line.

Of course, the idea of involving the factory’s engineering team in an asset-constrained innovation project or assembling the best team from the start seems largely obvious but so often well-intentioned projects fail to achieve their true potential. To help avoid this happening, the following should be considered:

  • Build a team that includes all the necessary creative and practical engineering disciplines.
  • Allow that team to operate with common and shared priorities and motivations.
  • Manage the team, rather than assume empathy and harmony will prevail.
  • Allow the team to go to Gemba to ensure that existing asset performance and flexibility is properly understood.
  • Ensure that current assets are properly and accurately understood rather than making assumptions about them.
  • Use what is learned in Gemba to provide structure and focus for the innovation process rather than seeing it as an unwelcome constraint.

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