Have you ever been to Genba? Let me take you to a mystical, wonderful land that far too many people overlook in their travels.

Genba is a Japanese word that means “the actual (or the real) place”. To understand a problem you have to go to the “real place” to observe the “real things” to get the “real facts” and find the real solutions. Often non-native visitors (non-Genbanese or “Gaijin”) pronounce this “Gemba”, and that’s ok. After all, they’re just visiting.

Like visiting any foreign place, it is important to learn some of the customs and a bit of the language to truly enjoy your trip. The land of Genba has many wondrous sights; complex machinery with blinking lights and interesting sounds, natives scurrying around intent on their tasks, and even “wizards” called engineers who do some amazing paper prestidigitation using arcane symbols and hieroglyphics. To those who have never been there, this can all seem very foreign and mystical, but if you visit with an open and inquisitive mind you can learn what all of these rituals really mean.

Plant managers and executives often visit this land using a technique called “walking the floor”. Like many people from my country, some are dismissive of the culture in this foreign place, and for sure there may be things that the Genbanese can learn from them. At the same time, visitors should remember that this is an ancient culture that has evolved over the years. The Genbanese know their land much better than tourists or even visitors with work visas do. In my country we have a term for tourists that insist on impressing their way of doing things on the “unenlightened”. This is “The Ugly American”. You know the type; they simply shout their McDonald’s order louder in English and constantly complain about the way things are done “over there”.

One of the worst transgressors in this land are some of the work visa holders known as “consultants”. These visitors are sometimes educated in another language called “Six-Sigma” or “Lean”. Because they are formally educated in this area they often feel like they can understand the Genbanese culture. They look at what the “natives” are doing and believe they understand it as well as the people who have lived there for twenty or thirty years. They then extrapolate this into a colonial attitude and try to enforce their culture onto the citizens. Unfortunately this can be met with hostility and can often turn into a disaster.

That is not to say that the Genbanese don’t have their own problems. There are lazy, dishonest and incompetent people in the land of Genba just like everywhere else. For the visitor, this may not be so obvious since they don’t speak the language. For those who take the time to learn the customs, language and culture these people are fairly easy to identify.

As someone who has actually lived in the land of Genba for many years, I would advise travelers to visit the land with great humility and an open mind. I also speak as a work-visa-holding consultant and a floor-walking manager or “tourist”. Treat the inhabitants with respect and try to immerse yourself in the culture. Until you can (at a minimum) speak the language and know the tried and tested traditions of the people who live there, you are not qualified to make judgements or issue demands.

Really. Even if you are the Emperor of Genba.


Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.