Womack's Yokoten By: Jim Womack

Womack: business school education should be gemba-based

WOMACK’S YOKOTEN – Somehow surprisingly, management schools teach very little about management, and when they do all learning is classroom-based. Instead, they should go to the gemba.

Words: Jim Womack, Founder and Senior Advisor, Lean Enterprise Institute

Global temperatures seem to be rising but it’s still cold in Boston in the winter and I’m getting old. So a few years ago I thought a bit about the cold/old problem and decided to do something bold: Become a short-term professor during the Boston winter in business schools in warm places in emerging economies. It’s been fun and I’ve learned a lot (and I hope the students have as well.) By going to the gemba in the massive MBA industry, started in America in the 1880s and still spreading all over the world, I’ve had a chance to grasp the situation, drill down on the problems, and even experiment with a few countermeasures.

Perhaps the most amazing finding, as one encounters their gemba for the first time, is that management schools don’t actually teach management. Instead they teach functional skills, mostly tool based: strategy, financial analysis, accounting, marketing, purchasing, etc.

Even in operations management courses, the small patch of the B-school world I’m allowed to participate in, they actually teach operations math: queueing theory, economic order analysis, bottleneck analysis, variation reduction (using tools from the kit of W. Edwards Deming moving forward to six sigma.) And note that “operations” are restricted to transactional activities – production in the factory, claims adjusting in an insurance company, the flow of patients through an emergency room in a hospital. In the real world, every value-creating activity in any organization is an “operation” and each needs to be managed for stability and improvement.

General management is sometimes discussed in passing in business policy courses, where students may learn about the org chart as the channel for authority and the tools of modern management: setting objectives through key performance indicators (KPIs) as part of a top-down annual plan and budget, holding direct reports to their KPI promises, passing out rewards for good performance and punishments for bad, and delegating problems and improvement activities to staff experts. But these points are covered quickly in a few lectures with no opportunities for students to actually practice management. The assumption in the B-School world seems to be that graduating students will find jobs in organizations with complex pre-existing “management systems” and that the students need to conform quickly to the practices in their new environments. Training them in a different, rigorous way to manage might even be a disservice that threatens their career progression!

What little management schools do teach about management they teach in classrooms: theory by PowerPoint and practice by means of case analysis, the innovation of the Harvard Business School at the turn of the 20th century. Their notion of going to the gemba is the quick “study” trip to see tools in action followed by discussion back in the classroom.

The dynamic of case teaching is particularly interesting. The student has all of the information that will be available written up in the case – no deeper investigation on the gemba is possible to verify that the data are what Taiichi Ohno wanted: facts. Accurate, timely and relevant. (For me getting to the facts in order to clarify the problem is the hardest and most rewarding part of management – the left hand side of the A3.)

So the objective for the student is to quickly define the problem and quickly find the solution, using the data and tools taught in the course, and to look as confident as possible in developing a PowerPoint presentation to share the conclusions. Is it surprising that the world is awash with B-school trained managers – the ones who give lean practitioners headaches every day – who work in conference rooms far from the gemba to quickly define the problem and prescribe the solution while showing absurd self-confidence? (See Professor Henry Mintzberg’s recent blog article on how this has worked out in practice as B-School students rise to become CEOs and perform worse than CEOs who never went near a management school - MBAs as CEOs: Some troubling evidence.)

Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s assume that B-schools don’t really think their practices are effective or the best way to create good managers. What can they do instead?

The place to start is to ask what “management” actually is. In our lean world we believe it’s (1) gaining agreement on what is important for the organization to achieve (through hoshin planning involving every employee at every level), (2) taking initiatives to countermeasure important problems or to deploy on important initiatives (through A3 analysis by line managers), and (3) creating and sustaining basic stability in every “operation” (through daily management). And, most important, we need to agree that management is not a theory but a social practice that can only be mastered by repetitive cycles of daily management, A3 analysis, and hoshin planning with the help of a teacher (or coach or sensei, if you prefer) engaging with front-line value creators and lower-level managers.

This suggests that the heart of any management education must be on the gemba, directly engaging the people doing the actual value-creating work. So instead of analyzing problems and jumping to solutions quickly without gemba knowledge, B-Schools need to find gemba on a continuing basis for every student and to take every student through extended cycles of hoshin, A3, and daily management. The students would win, the host organizations would win, and – I predict – professing would become a more satisfying occupation as well.

Doing this would require B-Schools to develop long-term relations with those organizations supplying gemba experience and to become, effectively, their centers of management training. This seems like a steep hill to climb but I don't think it’s crazy. Modern management – with its functional tools – was spread across the world by B-Schools after World War II and continuing today in new B-Schools being set up in the emerging economies where I teach. What’s needed now is the courage to try experiments on a different path. A3 analysis for B-Schools anyone?

(Full disclosure: Professor Peter Ward at the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State has been a board member of the Lean Enterprise Institute for many years, which has given me the opportunity to discuss these issues and to observe the Fisher School’s interesting experiments in this direction. For details on a gemba-focused MBA program in Operational Excellence click here.)


Jim Womack photograph

Management expert James P. Womack, is the founder and senior advisor to the Lean Enterprise Institute. The intellectual basis for the Cambridge, MA-based Institute is described in a series of books and articles co-authored by Jim himself and Daniel Jones over the past 25 years. During the period 1975-1991, he was a full-time research scientist at MIT directing a series of comparative studies of world manufacturing practices. As research director of MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program, Jim led the research team that coined the term “lean production” to describe Toyota’s business system. He served as LEI’s chairman and CEO from 1997 until 2010 when he was succeeded by John Shook.

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