Guest Post: Going to the Gemba with Grandma

Being tech support over the phone is a difficult job, being tech support for my 87 yr old grandmother (Mimi) and her TV remote should qualify me for sainthood.

A few years ago I got a tech support call from Mimi on my drive home from work. Trouble with the remote again, the batteries both fell out and she wasn’t sure in what direction they should go back in.

Having a point of reference to verbally describe orientation was impossible. Her eyesight was poor and the remote didn’t have the (+) and (-) displayed very well. Instead of springs on the (-) end in the remote there were just slightly raised clips, so no help there.

Next, I pulled over to the side of the road for a 35 minute chat about changing them 180 degrees and trying different battery configurations. Finally, she said that the batteries might be dead anyway. The remote had been burning through batteries.

A remote that is draining the batteries constantly? Hmm…something didn’t sound right, so I decided it was time to go to the gemba with grandma.

Normally, when I visited her we played cribbage, but this time we were going to do some TV watching and gather some info.

She said she had been replacing the batteries about every 2 weeks because they kept dying on her. After replacing them, the remote would work for a short while and then have more problems and she would just change them again.

I tried using the remote and didn’t have any issues. She gave me a dirty look and said, “That’s all well and good until I need to watch The Days of Our Lives and then it won’t work, mark my words”

Then suddenly it happened.  The remote didn’t work for her. “Oh fiddle sticks there it goes again.” NOTE: Fiddle sticks is a curse word in the Mimi dictionary.

I saw something that I would never have discovered if I hadn’t gone to the gemba.

Mimi had arthritis which made her joints very sore.  It also made the pointer finger on her right hand crooked to almost a 90 degree angle.

When she tried to change channels or hit the buttons sometimes that crooked finger would block the Infra Red beam that would send the signal to the TV.  It was a user issue.

The solutions were simple.

Mimi had to remind herself to keep her finger out of the way and I put 2 fresh batteries in the remote and taped it shut so they wouldn’t fall out.

She never had trouble with the remote again and we played cribbage 3-4 times a week for almost two years till she passed away.  The new batteries actually outlasted her…I think she would have enjoyed knowing that.

This post was authored by Jon Wetzel, creator of the Lean for Everyone Blog where he posts about the uses of lean concepts in everyday life.  Jon has 16 years worth of experience in startup biotech, invented the scented pen, and balloon sculptures for fun.  He is also certified in Lean, a Six Sigma Black Belt, a member of the Michigan Lean Consortium and runs his own consulting company – Lean for Everyone.  Jon can be contacted via e-mail at

There are 6 Comments

Dale Savage's picture

A story we will not soon forget and with it the reminder to go to the gemba. I think that any of us who have had grandparents or older parents that we have had to help with "modern" technology can relate very well with your example.

As with your grandma, sometimes we may get frustrated with a situation and start making assumptions instead of going to the spot and doing the observations needed to handle the situation correctly. Thank you again for the post.

Jon Wetzel's picture

Hi Dale-

Thanks for the comment.
When writing it I thought of all the other times I was doing "family tech support". My first thoughts were always how long would it take me to drive to where they were.

More often than not there is something not being captured so why take the risk.

Take care

Mark Welch's picture

Grandmas are golden. I was raised by my grandparents and my grandmother passed away 26 years ago today. Good thing you were able to appreciate her so much while she was with you. Those gemba visits must have been very special.

Jon Wetzel's picture

Hi Mark-
Thanks for the comment and yes they were very special times.

She was a "Rosie the Riveter" doing Quality Control at one of the Detroit plants that was refitted during the war effort.
She always said that was her favorite job. She felt needed and that she was doing something important.

Thanks again-

Chris Paulsen's picture

Great post, Jon. You must have made Mimi's day when you played cribbage.

Thanks for sharing.


Jon Wetzel's picture

Hey Chris-

Every evening ended the same. A kiss, a loving embrace and sly smile of "Are you gonna be back again tomorrow for more?"

At 89 that woman could still point like crazy.

Thanks for the comment-