Gemba Walk

Empty chairs in conference room

What is the Gemba Walk?

A Gemba Walk is an essential part of the Lean management philosophy. It is similar to Management by Walking Around (MBWA), which involves physically visiting the front line where team members work to get a better sense of how things are running and what improvements might be possible.

What is the origin of the Gemba Walk?

The word “Gemba,” sometimes written with an “n” as “Genba,” comes from the Japanese word meaning “the real place” or “the place where value is created.” The idea behind a Gemba Walk is to go to the actual place where the work is done, such as the production floor, to understand what goes on.

Toyota executive Taiichi Ohno developed the practice to observe and identify potential process improvements with the closely related practice of Genchi Genbutsu, which is the Japanese term for “go, look, see.”

How was the Gemba Walk adapted into the modern workplace?

Not all workplaces have a production line or shop floor, but modern CEOs have adapted the Gemba Walk to the entire spectrum of workplace environments.

It does not always take the form of a simple walk but can involve essentially walking a mile in the shoes of other workers. For example, Amazon’s CEO had all managers work for a time in customer service, giving them a better perspective on how the company interacts directly with the public.

The intent behind a Gemba Walk is for leadership or management to understand business processes and seek ways to reduce waste and increase efficiency.

How to do a Gemba Walk:

While implementing a Gemba Walk may vary from company to company, depending on the type of work product produced, the following steps provide a general outline of the process from start to finish. 

Make a plan.

Making a plan will help make the walk more productive. You need to have some idea of what you might look for and hope to identify. Sometimes, this is “choosing a theme” because the idea is to choose a focal point for your efforts.

The goals of a Gemba Walk may include exploring issues related to productivity, cost efficiency, safety, and waste reduction. Decide on your focus and consider making a list of things you want to look at more specifically. Keep in mind that a list is only a guide, however. After all, the point of doing the Gemba Walk is to see things that would not have occurred to you from your desk. 

You may wish to prepare a set of questions that you can ask team members during your walk. You might ask them to explain their roles and how they do their job or what they perceive to be the most challenging part of their work, for example. 

Prepare the team.

Next, it is important to prepare the team. If management is going to “walk around”—virtually or physically observing what they are doing and asking questions—it is a good idea to inform them of this ahead of time. You do not want employees becoming concerned, suspicious, or even wondering if their jobs are somehow on the line.

Take a chance to let everyone know the walk will occur and when. It is also a good idea to explain the purpose of the walk and your overall goals. Make it clear that the idea is to improve workflow and, hopefully, make their jobs easier in the end. This can make them much more comfortable with the process and better able to share their thoughts and ideas.

Focus on the process.

The goal of the walk is not so much to analyze the workers. Focusing on the people and their faults instead might come across as a personal attack and is counterproductive. You want to focus on the role of process in the work product to take the pressure of team members and  encourage ideas and collaboration. Make it clear in your questioning that there are no right or wrong answers. You are not conducting employee evaluations during a Gemba Walk. You are trying to understand the value stream flow and the processes involved and identify ways to optimize them. 

Follow the value chain.

The value chain or the value stream is the flow of value through the company. What is the end product produced at your company? Identify the value that your company produces and then look at how your organization develops and creates that value.

First, find where the flow of value begins. Perhaps, it is at the beginning of a production line or when a new job comes in. Start with the person who accepts the job and initiates the beginning of the process required to complete it. 

During your walk, move through your company in the same way as the generated value. You may find that the places where jobs go from one team to another could use the biggest improvements, or you may find a bottleneck as workloads combine and tasks are not distributed optimally.

Ask who, what, when, where, and why.

If you prepared questions during the planning phase, the walk is the time to ask them. 5 whys analysis and the five Ws—who, what, when, where, and why—are great starting points. For example, you might ask:

  • Who are the team members involved in a particular part of the process?

  • What do those team members do? What are the steps in the process, and how are they carried out?

  • Where does the work take place? Is the workplace set up in a way that increases efficiency, or is it cluttered, disorganized, or insufficient in some way?

  • When is each step of the process performed? Are steps completed in a certain order? Is that order the best possible order?

  • Why is the work performed important? In what way does it add value or enhance the value stream? Are there things done that do not serve a purpose that you could eliminate?

Take thorough notes.

When you see things in real time, it is sometimes easy to forget that your memory is imperfect. Do not rely on your ability to remember everything you see and, instead, take detailed notes. 

Another reason note taking is important is that it keeps the focus on observation. You may feel inclined to make suggestions on the spot, but this is not always a good idea. It is usually best to sit with your observations for a while before developing a plan for improvements. Having detailed notes will allow you to reflect and make suggestions with care and thought. 

Make sure to take notes during the walk and not afterward to keep track of as much detail as possible. 

Invite an objective observer.

Have an objective observer at your side to gain additional insights. They might be from another department in a similar role as you, one of your vendors or a customer, or someone else in a management position at your company. 

For an observer to be truly objective, they shouldn’t have a stake in the outcome of what you are observing. This will allow them to focus on what they actually see, not what they hope to see or what they fear they might see. Being less familiar with the team members and processes, an objective observer may also ask more valuable questions that would not have occurred to you otherwise. 

Circle back with the team.

After you complete your walk, review your notes, and come up with a list of possible changes, improvements, and suggestions, circle back and share these findings with the team. 

You may choose to do this by meeting with team leaders or sending out an email or announcement. If you use team or project management software, it may even have functionality that allows you to share Gemba Walk results and suggestions on a companywide platform. 

Make sure when you ask for changes that you explain why you think the changes will help. People find new practices much easier to implement if they understand the reasoning behind them. 

Try again.

Keeping in line with the notion of continuous improvement, after you have allowed time for changes to be implemented, do another Gemba Walk. On your next walk, you can directly observe how well any changes are working and identify if any new problems have arisen as a result. You will also be able to ask employees what their opinions are of the changes and whether they have seen increased efficiency as a result.

How often should you do Gemba Walks?

How often you should do a Gemba Walk depends on many factors, including industry, work product, company size, goals and objectives, and more.

In a production setting, some supervisors may Gemba Walk daily to different parts of the shop floor to keep constant tabs on how things are working. In other settings, weekly or monthly walks might make more sense. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what makes sense for your company and goals. 

The Gemba Walk: An essential part of Lean management.

Regular Gemba Walks are a great way to track what happens where value is created and flows. It is an essential part of Lean management and aids in reducing costs, increasing productivity, aligning with customer satisfaction efforts, and increasing teamwork and collaborative thinking.

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