If you’ve been through process improvement training, you’ve probably heard the phrase, “go to the gemba”. Gemba comes from the Japanese term meaning “the actual place”. The idea behind this process improvement tenet is that it’s easy to think you have the solutions when you are in a meeting room divorced from where the work is happening. But the way we think things work and the way things actually work, are not always one in the same. Furthermore, nobody is better positioned to solve problems than the front-line staff who are doing the work, because they have a detailed understanding of the procedures and they see what the customer experiences.

While process improvement-trained employees know this, it’s easy to forget especially when we’re facing the urgency of our current climate. Innovate or falter is the choice. However, a recent experience served as a powerful reminder of why it’s essential to engage people doing the work, most especially when big changes need to be rapidly implemented.

When COVID-19 began taking hold in Denver, the city established the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) which took over procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) and essential cleaning supplies for the city. In this system, when agencies wanted these supplies, they would contact the centralized intake point in the EOC, then the EOC would acquire and deliver the supplies. With the initial surge of COVID-19 passed, the EOC was standing down. This meant that the centralized intake point would be gone. However, with the precarious nature of the PPE and sanitation product supply chains, it was still essential for the city to secure and allocate these supplies at the city-wide level rather than each individual agency handling it for themselves. Furthermore, purchase of the supplies is eligible for reimbursement at the federal level from a FEMA grant, but this requires additional documentation.  

Picture of N95 masks, sanitizer, and medical supplies on a table

A working group had many sessions to identify a new process to re-create the centralized supply procurement model that had existed in the EOC. This group of over ten individuals was primarily comprised of director and manager-level employees who had been staffing the EOC, and the plan they were working towards required developing a new infrastructure. Enter Michael Romero and the “ah-hah” moment that reminds us why it is imperative to involve front-line staff.

Michael is a supervisor in the Purchasing division that manages day-to-day procurement for city agencies. He was brought in mid-way through the team’s working sessions to help provide insights on how to best develop this new infrastructure. Michael thoughtfully listened to the objectives of the process and quickly realized that there was a better path forward. Rather than re-creating a process, Michael recommended leveraging a current process and making small modifications to the guidance provided in the Job Aids so agency employees would add additional notes to their entries to support FEMA documentation.

The working group had been spinning their wheels and trying to wrap their arms around a beastly new process. Michael, who works with procurement all the time, came to a single meeting and the whole thing changed. Without his insights, at best it would have taken the group much longer to arrive at the simple conclusion. However, even more likely is that resources would have been wasted trying to implement a new process that would have been less effective. Ultimately, this may also have reduced the likelihood of receiving the required documentation to successfully be reimbursed for FEMA.  

Picture of Michael Romero standing next to a desk as he receives his Black Belt certificate
Michael Romero receiving his Black Belt Certificate

This story reminds us that the people doing the work are in the best position to make improvements, and “going to the gemba” is an essential part of process improvement. In times of rapid change, in the interest of speed we may inadvertently skip this step. However, we have to slow down to speed up because it takes even more time to implement a process that is going to be ineffective or require more resources in the long run. So anytime you’re embarking on an improvement, pause and ask yourself:

  • Do we have the voices of the front-line people doing the work?
  • Is there somebody better positioned than me who can speak to this process?
  • Have I seen what this process looks like from a customer’s perspective?

Michael Romero recently won General Services’ MVP award for his efforts in this initiative and while this process was a team effort, we were glad to see him celebrated for his contributions because he is a hard-working innovator in all times, and really shined in this project!  

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