Going to the Gemba

HIs friends call him the "Happy Lawyer"

My cohort and I traveled to China in September 2011, on a trip that was a core part of my MBA coursework. For years, I had been reading about the growing Chinese economy, the advances the Chinese had made in manufacturing and the robustness of their businesses. Indeed, upon landing in Beijing, I was in awe of the palpable drive, dynamism and buzz that I saw in China.  Everything was shiny, new and full of energy.

We have all heard the phrase that “travel is education”, but the Darden trip to China put a laser-sharp focus on the educational experiences. While in China, we went to where the action is. Leading Chinese business scholars candidly educated us on a wide-range of issues, including the outlook for the Chinese economy, the history of the Chinese stock market and likely future Chinese monetary policy. This instruction tested, challenged and re-shaped our view of China and its economy.

Interspersed among these classroom experiences, we visited real businesses, to see first-hand the implements of the economy in action. We toured a factory, walking the production line as the workers assembled complex machines before our eyes. We visited the local operations of a large US-based retailer, mingling among the throng of customers as we absorbed the cultural and economic differences in Chinese stores and merchandizing.

We walked the halls of a R&D facility of a U.S. manufacturer, learning as much about the centrally-planned office parks as about the output from the highly educated Chinese. Being immersed in this experience, we were like fish swimming in a current of economic and business information.

Interestingly, while I was there, this experience repeatedly reminded me of the lean operations concept that says you have to go where the action is in order to know what is truly happening.  The concept is called “going to the gemba”.  Gemba is a Japanese word that means the “work place”, the “real place”, the scene of the labor.  The idea is that, in order to learn what is truly happening, you must first be physically present where the action occurs, to see, hear and experience the work being performed.

Indeed, this idea suggests to me that data, statistics and metrics have a reduced amount of value unless you know the physical environment in which they occur.  Personally, I experienced the reality of this concept when I compared my own experiences about China.  I had read much about China before my visit, and thought I understood its economy.  But once I had seen the gembas of the Chinese factory, store and marketplace, the combination of that information with my studies opened my eyes and enriched my understanding of the Chinese economy many-fold.

So it was with even greater interest that I learned about Darden’s new MBA program that provided the ultimate in “going to the gemba” experience.  In fact, honoring this immersive experience, Darden named the program the global executive MBA program, or the GEMBA.  At Darden, the GEMBA program is about going to the gembas around the world.  Over the two year program, the GEMBA students immerse themselves in five countries.  During each of the six terms, the students experience an intense two-week visit to Brazil, China, India, France and the US, twice.  Similar to my experience in China, they too plunge themselves in the business schools, marketplaces and cultural traditions of the various gembas to which they travel.

Whether you chose the more traditional executive MBA program like I did, or you decided the GEMBA is your classroom, in either event you will go to the scene of the action.  There, you will get a first-class business education that incorporates seeing, hearing and feeling the economy move around you.

Peter Vanderloo is an in-house lawyer at a well-known tech company in the first year of the Executive MBA program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. His previous posts at Poets&Quants for Execs:

Meet Peter: He’s a Darden Student Blogging on his EMBA Journey

The Fundamental Value Proposition of an EMBA Program: Personal Transformation

Work-Life Balance in An EMBA Program? What Balance?

A Generous Gift in an MBA Experience: A Learning Team

On the Grounds

When You’re CEO for the Day–Or Class

The Mantra at Darden: “Trust the Process”

Things I Have Learned In the Last 12 Months


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