As Tesla bore down to deliver its Model 3 to market, Elon Musk had reportedly set up his office on the production floor. He was sleeping there as well. It seemed to have paid off so far, as Tesla announced that it met its self-imposed goal of producing 5,000 Model 3s each week. Not without problems with automation and self-described sabotage attempts.
According to Business Insider, Musk does not actually have an office desk, but instead moves to the part of the business that most needs him. This extreme version of the Lean practice of “going to the gemba” and the benefits and leverage it gives Musk shows just how powerful of a leadership technique the practice can be.
“Gemba” is a Japanese Lean term that means where the work is being done or value is being produced. Lean practitioners preach the power of “going to the gemba” and “gemba walks,” allowing leadership to view what is actually happening rather than making arm-chair decisions about idealized business processes from behind office desks. Understanding how your value stream is actually operating to produce your organization’s outputs from its inputs is vital to the success of your organization, and effective gemba walks allow leaders to better understand the issues and opportunities in their processes.
Musk’s all-in approach to going to the gemba, essentially finding the part of his company’s value stream that most needs his attention and camping out there, says quite a bit about him and the practice’s power.
Leaders are most valuable when they are actively engaged in analyzing and solving the most critical problems facing their organization. Additionally, leaders should maximize value, including their own value as managers. What Musk appears to be doing is maximizing his leadership value by going to where he’s most needed. Being behind a desk in some sky-high office tower, separate from the problems that are critical to the organization, seems inherently wasteful under Musk’s gemba-camping approach. To maximize the value of his leadership, Musk needs to be able to set up camp wherever he is needed most.
What’s does Musk get out of gemba-camping? For one thing, there’s the lead-from-the-front leverage of being where the work is critical. As Musk associate Steve Jurvetson told podcaster and best-selling author Tim Ferriss, Musk can pull the “I’m here, where are you?” card on suppliers and staff. Musk’s commitment to setting up camp where the crucial problems are and physically positioning himself to focus on them is indicative of his laser-like focus, which Jurvetson also mentions, and drives home the criticality of the issue to all involved.
There is also Musk’s first-hand knowledge of his company’s critical problems. Musk doesn’t get second- or third-hand reports about what went wrong on the factory floor. He’s there to see it happen. Similarly, his responses are first hand and in real time, reducing error and time waste in communicating with his team. Musk doesn’t need to convey his message through a series of managers because he’s right there. Musk himself is a proponent of the flat management structure, and this kind of gemba camping shows the value in being flat, cutting through the layers of management bureaucracy directly into the value stream on the factory floor.
What can leaders take away from Musk’s gemba-camping approach? The first is the psychological power in motivating your team and others that comes from being where the critical aspects of your business are. If you are actively engaged in your company’s problems, your team will follow suit, and there’s no better way to be engaged than to be where the problems are. You’ll also learn things about your own organization and its people that you’ve been missing from behind your desk. Furthermore, in times of urgency, being on the scene gives you the ability to make real-time decisions that would otherwise have to work their way through the command chain, resulting in delays and possible miscommunication. Even though you aren’t likely to become a deskless nomad like Musk, you should assess the value of the time you spend behind your office desk. Is there a more critical place you could be that would better maximize your value to your organization? If so, maybe you should start doing some gemba camping, too.