What is a Gemba Walk?

A Gemba Walk is a popular LEAN management method in which leaders gain valuable insight into the flow of value within the organization by visiting the workplace and interacting with employees. Leaders also learn new ways to support their employees. This approach encourages collaboration between employees and the leaders.

Gemba is a Japanese term that means “the real place”. It is where the real work takes place. A Gemba Walk provides company leaders with a unique opportunity to step out of the “ivory tower” and see the real work, as well as build trusting relationships with other workers.

What are 3 Important Components of the Gemba Walk?

  • See the work in action. Gemba walks are designed to encourage managers and leaders at all levels to walk around their places of work and find wasteful activities.
  • Listen and discover. Gemba walks’ main goal is to investigate the value stream in-depth and identify its problems through active communication. Good leaders are always open to listening, not talking. 
  • Respect people. The purpose of a Gemba Walk is to uncover problems (better known as opportunities). The employees need to feel safe. You don’t need to point fingers or blame people. You’re not there to review and judge the results. You are there to work with the team and solve problems together. Focus on the weaknesses of the process and not the people.

Gemba Walk planning, execution, and follow-up

Planning, execution, and follow-up are key components to a successful Gemba Walk. The following are things to keep in mind when planning and executing a Gemba Walk:

Get the team ready

It is crucial that all team members involved in the Gemba walk understand what it is and how it can be used. It is their job to remove any obstacles that hinder them from adding the most value. Everyone will feel more at ease and open to having a conversation about the walk before it happens.

Develop a plan

Gemba walks are not to be confused with management by walking around, which is a different approach where leaders just wander about and take part in the activities of employees. Gemba walks should have a purpose. They are often linked to a Key Performance Indicator (KPI).

Gemba Walk managers ask detailed questions about what is being observed. Who are the participants? What materials are used What are you doing? What do you do? What time does the task occur? What is the outcome? 

Follow the Value Stream

Handoffs between people, departments, and processes are often where the greatest opportunities for improvement exist. These areas that have high waste potential can be identified and addressed by following the flow of value.

Employees are encouraged to propose shifts or areas of improvement that could benefit from a Gemba walk. This will not only help you find opportunities to improve, but it will make the process more collaborative. They are the ones doing the actual work and have a greater chance of seeing the process from a unique perspective. The value you bring to the table is not a new perspective on existing processes. Asking people for their suggestions is a way to engage them and make it clear that you are there to support, not criticize.

Never lose sight that the process as a problem (not the people)

Gemba walks are not an employee performance assessment. It is designed to help improve processes by observing, understanding, and eventually improving them. It should not feel harsh or threatening.

It’s a promising idea to inform employees at the Gemba that you will be asking them many questions about how, what, and why things happen. It is important to be clear that you don’t seek “right” answers. You only need honest and complete answers. You want them to tell you if work isn’t being done according to the Standard and not to cover it up. They must understand that you are asking questions out of genuine curiosity and not to be accused or confronted.

Keep a record of your observations

Gemba walks are full of information, and it is important that you have tools for recording your observations.

  • Log your observations – Although we may be stating the obvious, it is important to have a way to record your observations. The time to react to what you see after your Gemba walk and not during it. A way to recall what you saw and what you thought is essential. 
  • A camera can be extremely helpful later to browse through a gallery or even just a few seconds of video. Respect all people you photograph. 
  • Open mind You don’t want to let preconceived notions cloud your observations. You shouldn’t assume that everyone performs the task the same way or that the work is performed according to the Standard.

Ask questions

It is difficult to let go of preconceived notions about how work is done. You shouldn’t assume everything is done in accordance with the standard. Ask employees why they do what they do. Ask employees about their work documentation, how they handle exceptions, and why certain operations are done in a certain order.

Gemba Walk’s 5 Ws provides a great structure for all the questions that you would like to ask.

  • Who? – Who are you observing in the process of observation? Who is responsible for the input to the process? Who are the “customers?” of the process? Pro tip: Don’t ask who is responsible for the problems.
  • What? – What are both the inputs to and the outputs of the process. What are the obstacles that prevent flow?
  • Where– Is the area where the work is done in accordance with 5S? Are the equipment and materials easily accessible? Are you aware of motion waste?
  • When– Are process inputs readily available? Are outputs available when needed? Do you see the waste of time?
  • Why? – What added value does this work bring to the customer’s life?

Do not suggest changes during the walk

Gemba walks are an opportunity to observe, not act. While it may be tempting to rush to find solutions or make changes immediately, you should take time to reflect before making any decisions. Leaders who throw solutions at people undermine their ability to solve problems on their own. A DMAIC improvement cycle or PDCA can help ensure that the changes that are made will address the issue. We also make sure that the right people are involved, which is usually the people who do the work.

Participate in teams

Although not all Gemba walks need to be done in a group, it is a great idea to bring along a leader from another functional area of your organization to gain a fresh perspective. A person who is less familiar with the process may ask different questions to gain a better understanding of the work.

Who should go on a Gemba Walk?

  • A vendor If your team uses consumable products, software, or equipment, inviting the vendor along to your walk might prove useful. They might be able to suggest best practices or spot errors in the way the product is used. You may be able to suggest ways they can improve the product.
  • A customer. This may seem controversial and not always a good idea. However, today’s customers value transparency and are often curious about how the sausage is made. You might also find things they are less likely to value than you.
  • A peer in another department It’s easy to get so used to seeing problems every day that we don’t notice them. If you go on frequent Gemba walks, the second pair of eyes might prove to be valuable.
  • A sales representative It is crucial that people pitching your product to customers understand the process and how it relates to customer value.

Follow up with employees

Sometimes, the Gemba walk results will be obvious immediately as changes are made and/or an improvement cycle begins. However, even if there is no immediate action, it is important that employees follow up with you. Communicate what you’ve learned and what the next steps will be.

Return to the Gemba

After a Gemba walk, make sure you return to the Gemba to verify that changes have been made. While KPIs may give you an indication of the effectiveness of improvement, they are not as effective as direct observations.

An example Gemba Walk Checklist

A checklist is an important thing to prepare before starting a Gemba Walk. This will help you to focus and target your efforts. You can include questions to help you better understand the process that you will be following. 

Here are examples of Gemba Walk checklist questions:

  1. What processes are you currently working on?
  2. Is there an established process or standard for this kind of work?
  3. Are there problems presently being experienced from the process?
  4. Do you know why the process is presently experiencing problems?
  5. How would you propose to fix the problem?
  6. What tools do you use to discover the root cause of the problem?
  7. If you find a problem, who do you notify?

What should you be looking for in a Gemba Walk?

  • How clean and free from clutter is your work environment? Are there any items in the workplace that aren’t needed? This applies to both virtual and physical environments. Do employees have to sift through tons of information to find what they are looking for?
  • Are people performing standardized work or random tasks?
  • Are there many people moving around but not producing much? Avoid unnecessary walking, meeting, and reporting.
  • Are there potential dangers in the workplace
  • Are there many hours wasted in this process? What amount of time do people spend waiting for things to happen? For the previous steps to be completed, for tasks to be approved, etc.?
  • Talk to workers and be curious. What is their motivation? What are their problems, which may not seem obvious to the casual observer? Sometimes, you just need to ask!
  • Are there designated areas? Or, in a knowledge-based situation, is it possible to have easy access to information for workers? Are they able to find out where or who to ask for help?
  • Is it workers who are waiting for machines or machines that are waiting for workers? The former is fine, but the former should never be allowed. Access to powerful tools and fast access is not just a way to attract new employees to your company, but it is also a clever idea.

In Conclusion

The Gemba Walk is a great tool to ensure management is connected to the significant issues in the company and isn’t trying to solve issues from a chair. The Gemba Walk can help increase the visibility of continuous improvement and lean, get buy-in from employees, and make daily progress on improvements and waste removal from the value stream. Regular Gemba walks can provide significant benefits such as:

  • Stable relationships with people who do the work and add value.
  • You can identify problems quickly and take action to improve your performance.
  • Employee engagement is enhanced by clear communication of goals and objectives.