January's column featured some highlights of the world-renowned quality consultant, Mr. Masaaki Imai's keynote presentation at the 1999 Information Quality Confer-ences. This month's column continues that discussion by describing the principles of Gemba Kaizen.

KAIZEN1 comes from two Japanese words, Kai meaning, "change," and Zen meaning "good" (for the better). In business, KAIZEN means "continuous process improvement involving everyone in the organization."2 Gemba, the Japanese word meaning the "real place," refers in business to the place where the work that adds value takes place. In manufacturing, Gemba is the shop floor. In the information age, Gemba is anywhere that processes are performed and information originates or knowledge is gained.

Gemba KAIZEN Principles

KAIZEN has a five-step process for dealing with problems and anomalies when they occur. These are called the Gemba principles.

In information quality, Gemba is any place where interaction takes place and knowledge is gained. Gemba is not necessarily where data is entered into a computer. Gemba is where the information-originating processes occur. In addition to the shop floor where KAIZEN is learned about the products produced, Gemba is the point of sale where customers buy goods. It is also the warehouse where orders are filled and the shipped quantity and inventory count become updated. Gemba is the accident scene where investigators seek to discover and record the data about the accident. It is also the phone conversation where prospective travelers make reservations and indicate their travel details. It is the ticket counter where they check in and indicate their seating preference and check bags. Gemba is the gate where they board the plane. It is the airplane cabin where the passengers give information as to their preferences, and it is the destination baggage claim where they collect their bags or describe those that may have gone elsewhere. Gemba is the clinic examination room where the nurse and the doctor interact with the patient and record information. In short, Gemba is wherever knowledge and information are exchanged between the enterprise and the stakeholders of the enterprise.

The five steps of Gemba KAIZEN of information quality are:

  1. When information problem problems occur, go to Gemba first: "Gemba is the source of all information."3 When data defects occur, go to the place where the business event of information origin takes place. Observe what goes on. In order to find the real cause of the problem, you must see the processes as they are performed. Watch the data entry processes if there are input errors. Listen to the telemarketers taking customer orders if there are customer data or order data errors. Observe the processes on the shop floor if the production data is wrong. Watch sales clerks scanning items if retail store inventory is off. By observing the processes, you can see problems in the information production processes. You may see application screens that are non-ergonomic to the nature of the business transaction. You may see convoluted business procedures or lack of procedures altogether. Lack of knowledge about how to perform a process may be evident. Time pressure and quotas may become apparent as information producers skip the capturing of certain data. Causes may be readily identifiable when you watch the processes being performed.

  2. Check the relevant objects. When observing the processes at work, look for the things that are significant in the workplace. It may be a complaining customer in the checkout line, or it may be the computer screens, procedure manuals, forms, equipment gauges or any other object or information source or tool involved in the process. Examine these things that may be a contributing cause of the information quality problems. Questions to ask include: Is the form used to capture information easy to use? Is the meaning of each piece of information clear? Do the information producers understand the valid values and the business rules that apply? Are error-proofing procedures in place?

    As you observe the processes being performed and look at the relevant components, you often are able to identify the root cause of the problems. This is a cost-effective way to improve information quality.

  3. Take temporary countermeasures on the spot. When you discover data quality problems, do not just report that there are problems. Stop and help the information producers identify stopgap measures. Such measures can be quick, simple and produce an immediate benefit. Stopgap measures may include collaborative problem solving with the information producer (such as exploring and helping someone understand the meaning of the data or who uses it and what kinds of problems are caused when the data is nonquality) or developing checklists or hints and writing them on the information form. It may be the discovery of unclear procedures that can be reworded on the spot, communicating the improvements to the process owner. Semi-immediate improvements may include simple reasonability edits that can enhance the electronic information capture or a retraining requirement that can be conducted within days. Do not just walk away from an identified problem. Always leave Gemba with higher quality information being produced, even if the improvements are temporary countermeasures.

  4. Find the root cause. Because the problems you investigate are serious enough to investigate, they are serious enough to analyze the root cause and eliminate the cause and with it the recurrence of the information quality problems. Remember it is not just the defective data you are eliminating ­ it is the costs of the information scrap and rework and process failure caused by nonquality data that you are eliminating. The process for finding root cause is simple. To get back to the originating cause, keep asking "why" as many times as necessary. Do not just fix the precipitating cause. Probably 80 percent of information quality problems could be solved on the spot if managers could see the problem in Gemba and insist they be fixed on the spot.

  5. Standardize to prevent data defect recurrence. Once you verify the effectiveness of your temporary countermeasures and assure they are directed at the root cause, act to standardize the improvement. Make the improvements to the form, procedures, the application or database design enhancement and roll them out formally, providing training as necessary. When you make a procedure a standard, remember that standard in quality means the best way (known at this time) to do a job ­ not just a uniform way to do it. Meeting standards does not automatically mean you are providing quality. Manage-ment's job is to develop standard processes to meet customer quality expectations and then to continually improve them to the point they delight customers and develop loyalty.

If Gemba is, in fact, the source of all information, shouldn't every information professional and every information quality professional spend time in Gemba frequently? Without doing so you cannot fully understand the information needs of the knowledge workers, nor the barriers that hinder the information producers. Take a trip to Gemba today. Observe and study the real value work of the enterprise. It just may change your entire perspective of what you do.
Visit www.information-quality. com (on the IQ Forum under the Information Quality Resources button) to let me know what you learn.


  1. KAIZEN and Gemba KAIZEN are registered trademarks of the KAIZEN Institute.
  2. Imai, Masaaki. Gemba Kaizen: A Common-sense, Low-Cost Approach to Management. New York. McGraw- Hill. 1997. P. 19-20.
  3. Ibid. P. 26.

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