Kamishibai for better conversations at the gemba

We lean thinkers tend to make a rather indulgent use of Japanese words. At times, this can put people off, but I believe that there is no reason why we shouldn’t use Japanese terms, so long as we understand why we are using them and where they come from.

One of the most interesting ones, in my opinion, is kamishibai. In Japanese, this translates into “paper drama”, referring to a form of street theater that became popular in Japan during the Great Depression. In a kamishibai performance, travelling storytellers use paper scrolls to tell stories to their audience. Kamishibai has a strong educational component to it, which makes it very popular in kindergardens for example.

In the lean world, we talk about kamishibai boards (which, like many other tools and techniques, have been borrowed from the Toyota Production System). These are directly linked to organizational learning, having come to represent a fundamental tool for process confirmation and a powerful driver for improvement. Let’s see how they work.

When using a kamishibai board, a manager or supervisor picks one card from the board – either randomly or based on a schedule. Each card shows a specific task or element of the standardized work that is then checked upon (typically as part of a gemba walk) at a working cell or workstation. The card tells the supervisor what she is going to observe on a specific day, ensuring that standards are maintained and that quality controls are held on a regular basis.

In a Schneider Electric factory here in Colombia that I visited recently, day after day the manager and his team picked four cards from the board to go visit four random areas or sections of the line. (Interestingly, their inspiration to introduce kamishibai boards came from a seminar they attended, held by Dr Frederico Pinto, CEO of the cancer treatment center IOV in Brazil – a powerful example of yokoten.) There, the team of managers initiated a dialogue with the production team, starting from the questions shown on the cards they had picked from the kamishibai board. All questions are related to the standardized work in use at the cell. During my visit I saw how managers carry out this enriching exchange about how the work is done and, one more time, I was reminded of how different it was from traditional auditing – a trap it is all too easy to fall into when at the gemba. The team was asked about the different cycles of their daily management, the different meetings taking place and their purpose. Of course, the questions displayed on each card can focus on anything, with huge implications for safety, machine maintenance, quality and, of course, the flow of value towards the customer. It was exciting to see how the Schneider team leverages tools such as this to strengthen their management system, and even more to see how they have been able to take these constructive conversations to other areas of the business, including Engineering and (soon) in Warehousing. Experimentation with kamishibai is leading to great learning across the business, proving that this approach works well in all settings, from manufacturing to administrative tasks and office work.