Three words: Gemba, Kaikaku, Kaizen.

Gemba means ‘the place truth can be found’.
Kaikaku means ‘radical improvement’.
Kaizen means ‘gradual improvement’.

Projects are all about change. Usually we’re talking about a large change (Kaikaku). That’s why it’s a project: a temporary organization with a specific goal.

You might also argue that an agile project approach also has some Kaizen characteristics: small iterations, learning and improving. Still, when the project is finished, there should be a large improvement in comparison to the pre-project situation.

So what happened to Gemba? Where’s Gemba within projects?

First of all, I think there’s Gemba in learning by doing. Analysis is only theory. Truth is found when the software becomes available. Of course everyone involved in ‘Lean Thinking’ or agile practices knows this. No news here.

There’s another level of Gemba though that’s equally important from a change point of view. That’s the current state of things, the reality as we know it.  After all, if we’re talking about change than there is a current state thats needs to be transformed to a  future state. It does not suffice only to think about the future state. You do need to know the current state.

This is how lean is implemented. You need to know the future (ideal lean) state, but you also need to know the current state. Initially that current state isn’t lean at all. Then you decide on a course of action. Usually an iterative process of Kaikaku followed by Kaizen. Of course the ideal state is constantly changing, so lean is more of a process than a state.

So what’s the relevance to project management?

When it comes to the project approach I think it is important to have a vision based on the ideal state, for instance the Scrum process. Ideally the project should be based on Scrum.

However, Gemba is also found in the current state of the organisation. Here it becomes important to determine the readiness for an ideal approach. Usually, in most cases the organisation is only partially ready, there are some issues. That’s normal, most organisations are not lean.

Implementing a fully lean approach such as ‘Scrum by the book’ possibly fails because there are too many impediments. Also I don’t  think the leanliness of the project’s process is that important, what matters is that the project’s process is lean enough to do the job. Preferably very lean, but less lean than ideal might also work, or might even be better. Anyhow, implementing a project without the Gemba of the current state isn’t lean in my book.