A Gemba Walk is a fundamental component of lean management. It describes the personal observation of work to learn more about it. Gemba is a Japanese word that loosely translates as “the real place”, or in business, “the place where value is created”. The Gemba Walk as a concept was created by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System of lean manufacturing. Ohno wanted to encourage management executives to leave their offices and see where the real work happened. This, he hoped, would build relationships between employees with vastly different skillsets and build trust.
Understanding a Gemba Walk
The exact physical place will vary from industry to industry. For a jazz band, value is created in the recording studio. For a pilot training school, value is created in the classroom and the aircraft.
The three important elements of a Gemba Walk
Each Gemba walk must respect three important elements:
- Go and see. Management executives from every level of the hierarchy are encouraged to take regular tours of Gemba locations and be involved in finding wasteful activities.
- Ask why. A good leader must ask the right questions and also be a good listener. They must be able to liaise with workers to explore the value stream and locate problematic components.
- Respect people. It’s important to note that a Gemba Walk is not a “boss walk” – which often involves direct criticism of the way an employee works. Executives must focus on collaboratively identifying the weak spots of processes and not the weak spots of people.
Seven steps for a successful Gemba Walk
A Gemba Walk may seem like somewhat of an unstructured process, but a basic framework should be used depending on particular goals and objectives.
Let’s now define each of the seven steps:
- Pick a theme – where will the effort be focused? Common themes include safety, efficiency, and productivity. With a theme identified, executives should create a list of thematic questions.
- Prepare the team – the individuals who will be consulted must be made aware that a Gemba Walk will be occurring ahead of time. Importantly, they should be reassured that it is a continuous improvement opportunity and not an evaluation of their personal performance.
- Focus on the process – as noted, the main purpose of a Gemba Walk is to observe, understand, and improve processes.
- Follow the value stream – the biggest process improvements are often found during handoffs between processes, departments, or people. It is also beneficial to invite the employees to suggest other possible improvements.
- Record observations – either with pen or paper or digitally. Resist the temptation to make suggestions during the walk itself – no matter how obvious solutions may appear. Improvement should be analyzed later with a fact-based problem-solving tool such as the PDCA cycle.
- An extra pair of eyes – where possible, involve a colleague from another department to take part in the Gemba Walk. Those who are less familiar with the process may have a fresh perspective on any improvements to be made.
- Follow-up – Gemba Walk insights must be shared with participants, irrespective of the significance of process improvements. If improvements have been identified, give notice to the relevant employees and involve them in process changes. Good communication is vital. This helps avoid a scenario where employees believe that management is using Gemba Walks to interfere or criticize.
Gemba Walk checklist questions
While managers need to be good listeners and ask questions as issues arise, it can also be a good idea to prepare some topics of discussion before visiting the worksite.
For inspiration, the manager can look to the eight wastes of lean manufacturing: defects, excess processing, overproduction, waiting, inventory, transportation, motion, and non-utilized talent. It may also be worthwhile to consider the 5S workplace management technique as a means of collaborating with employees to better organize the work area.
We have also taken the liberty to list some example questions below arranged into four key categories.
- How is an error or defect detected when it occurs?
- What are the existing approaches to implementing corrective action?
- What are the most common errors? What is the reason for their frequency?
- Who is responsible for making decisions concerning errors and defects?
- How is the process of error detection and resolution recorded?
- For each process, are standard work practices complete, concise, and able to be reviewed? In this context, standard work involves the identification and communication of issues to discover the most efficient way to perform a task that is known to everyone.
- What methods are in place to ensure standard work has a beneficial outcome?
- Does there exist a smooth transition from one process step to the next?
- Are there training procedures that ensure new employees are trained in standard work?
- If the employee was allowed to improve standard work and make it more efficient, where would they begin? Some employees believe standard work is a robotic process that limits creativity and innovation, but the reverse is true since it provides the stable foundation for which further process improvements can be made. What’s more, employees engaged in standard work trust the process and have the mental space and clarity to formulate new and innovative ideas.
- What does the team consider to be important? In other words, what are its priorities?
- Are there any issues or topics that have been overlooked which need to be discussed?
- Do the employees have the resources they need for each process?
- Do they have access to tools that can capture improvement opportunities?
- Similarly, is the necessary inventory available as and when it is needed?
- Are tools such as process maps, control charts, and Kanban boards up to date?
How to derive maximum benefit from Gemba Walks
In the final section we will provide a summary of general Gemba Walk wisdom and best practices:
- The overarching goal of a Gemba Walk is to ensure that leaders help their subordinates adopt a mindset of continuous improvement.
- The presence of standard work procedures can make the Gemba process more efficient and more effective.
- Maximum effectiveness occurs when abnormal process conditions are made visible.
- Remember that the structure of a Gemba Walk depends on the situation and the extent to which lean principles are embodied by the organization. This can make the planning of inspections problematic, but leaders must avoid the temptation to “standardise” the Gemba Walk as doing so will render it useless.
- A Gemba Walk is a lean management practice that advocates the direct observation of work to identify process improvements.
- A Gemba Walk encourages upper management to build relationships with employees. This is facilitated by regularly liaising with process workers and listening to their concerns without interjecting.
- To some extent, a Gemba Walk should be allowed to flow in a natural direction. Nevertheless, some initial preparation before following a basic framework of steps is advisable.
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