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Harish Jose


Chekhov’s Gun at the Gemba

Lean inspiration from a short-story master

Published: Thursday, January 3, 2019 - 13:03

One of my favorite things to do when I learn new and interesting information is to apply it to a different area to see if I can gain further insight. Here, I am looking at the principle, “Chekhov’s gun,”  named after the famous Russian author, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904), and how it relates to gemba.

Anton Chekhov is regarded as a master short-story writer. In the short story genre, there is a limited amount of resources to tell your story. Chekhov’s gun is a principle that states that everything should have a purpose.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
—Anton Chekhov

Here, the “gun” is a monologue that Chekhov deemed superfluous and unrelated to the rest of the play.

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.” (From Gurlyand’s “Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov,” in Teatr i iskusstvo, No. 28, July, 11, 1904 p. 521. Source: Wikipedia.)

How does this relate to gemba? Gemba is the actual place where you do your work. When you design the work station with the operator, you need to make sure that everything has a place, and everything has a purpose. Do not introduce an item to the station that has no need to be there. Do not introduce a step or an action that does not add value.

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
—Anton Chekhov (from Chekhov’s letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev in 1889)

This idea also applies to motion economy. Let’s look at some of the industrial engineering maxims from the principles of motion economy that are akin to Chekhov’s gun:
• There should be a definite and fixed place for all tools and materials.
• Tools, materials, and controls should be located closely in and directly in front of the operator.
• Materials and tools should be located to permit the best sequence of motions.
• Two or more jobs should be worked upon at the same time, or two or more operations should be carried out on a job simultaneously, if possible.
• Number of motions involved in completing a job should be minimized.

Chekhov’s gun is not necessarily talking about foreshadowing in a movie or a book. A gun should not be shown on the wall as a decoration. It needs to come into the story at some point to be value adding. The author should make use of every piece introduced into the story. Everything else can be removed.

I loved this aspect of Chekhov’s gun. In many ways, as lean practitioners, we are also doing the same. We are looking at an operation or a process, and we are trying to eliminate the unwanted steps/items/motions.

When you work in a strictly regulated industry such as medical devices, the point about line clearance also comes up when you ponder about Chekhov’s gun. Line clearance refers to removal of materials, documentation, equipment, etc. from the previous shop order/work order to prevent any inadvertent mix-ups that can be quite detrimental to the end user. Only keep things that are necessary at the station.

I will finish with a great lesson from Chekhov that is very pertinent to improvement activities:
Instructing in cures, therapists always recommend that “each case be individualized.” If this advice is followed, one becomes persuaded that those therapies recommended in textbooks as the best, meaning perfectly appropriate for the template case, turn out to be completely unsuitable in individual cases.

Always keep on learning….

First published on Harish’s Notebook blog.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla, where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject-matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments, and publishes frequently on his blog Harish’s Notebook.