Honest Abe Goes to the Gemba

Seven states have just succeeded from the Union.  They form the Confederate States of America and elect their own President.  The Confederate States have control of the Mississippi River, all federal agencies in the South, and nearly all southern military forts and arsenal.  The Union Army is in shambles and has poor leadership.  The state militias are in even worse shape.  Your predecessor declares that he is “the last President” as you are taking office.  You are not yet a proven leader.

What would you do?

Abraham Lincoln was in these circumstances and he went to the Gemba (現場, the real place).  The new President knew that he needed to get as close as possible to the action to be a great leader and to save a nation.  He spent much of his time with the troops and in the battlefield.  This is not an over dramatized analogy.  President Lincoln was literally leading from the battlefield on occasion and was even under fire as a sitting president.  President Lincoln spent more time out of the White House than in it in 1861.

Lincoln’s approach may have been 100 years ahead of his time.  Tom Peters coined the term Management by Walking Around (MBWA) in his book In Search of Excellence.  Peters and Nancy Austin state in A Passion for Excellence that MBWA is being in touch with customers, suppliers, and your people.  It facilitates innovation and makes possible the teaching of values to every member of the organization.  Does this not sound likeLean Leadership?

Lincoln on Leadership discusses that people were a great source of information and that Lincoln knew he needed to stay close to them.  He also knew that people were (and still are) most comfortable in their own environment.  Lincoln demonstrated that one of the most effective ways to gain acceptance to a philosophy is to demonstrate it in your life.  By entering others’ environment and by maintaining frequent contact, you demonstrate commitment, collaboration, and community.

Lean Leaders see and hear about the issues in their factories and sites first hand by going to the Gemba.  Lean Leaders build trust and relationships through frequent contact by going to the Gemba.  Lean Leaders show what is important and demonstrate commitment by going to the Gemba.  Lean Leaders guide and coach their team by going to the Gemba.

President Lincoln proved to be one of the greatest leaders and saved a nation while going to the Gemba.  As a Lean Leader, you need to go to the Gemba as well.

Christian Paulsen
Lean Leadership
Written for the Consumer Goods Club


This post is the first of several Lean Leadership lessons I intend to share based on the leadership of President Abraham Lincoln.  It is also a follow-up to a recent post titled Lincoln on Leadership.  The historical facts were obtained from the book with the same title.  It’s a great book that I recommend and you can see more about it here.

Please leave a comment below if you liked this article. You can also connect on LinkedIn, follow me on Twitter, subscribe via e-mail (right side bar), retweet, digg, or stumble this article.  You can check out my Facebook page and continue the discussion there as well. Your feedback is appreciated.

About Christian Paulsen

Christian Paulsen is an Executive Consultant with 20 years of Lean Manufacturing. Chris adds value to organizations by driving process improvement and bottom line savings. Chris intends to help others by sharing the lessons learned after a quarter century of operational leadership, marriage, parenting, and even longer as a Cubs fan. Your comments on this blog are welcome. You can also connect with Chris via LinnkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook in the right sidebar. Chris welcomes your comments. Christian's professional services are available by contacting him through LinkedIn (right side bar)
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3 Responses to Honest Abe Goes to the Gemba

  1. John Huner says:

    The main benefit of going to the Gemba is lost if you have a faked view presented to the “visitors” as often happens now if high ranked executives do such visits to the gemba. I suppose there is still some minor benefit from seeing the situation (even if it is prettied up). And their might still be a small bit of PR value and internal PR value. But if you go to the gemba, don’t settle for a prettied up picture of the gemba.

    • Great points, John. Fortunately this doesn’t appear to be the case for our 16th President. I can relate though when I think about visits by VP’s who did not make it a regular habit to be in the plants. Gemba walks are most valuable when they are strategic and frequent. Plant staff who take regular walks through the production floor will learn first hand what others miss. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. silver price says:

    Wow. Amazing book on the life of Abraham Lincoln and the leadership lessons he taught us.

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