Gemba Walk

A Gemba Walk is a management technique used in lean manufacturing, which involves observing the processes in a proactive way.
Gemba Walk Process Walk Mutomorro

In recent years, the business world has seen an increasing emphasis on efficiency and continuous improvement. One of the strategies that have risen to prominence in this context is the LEAN approach. LEAN, a concept initially developed in the automotive industry by Toyota, focuses on maximising customer value while minimising waste. It represents a paradigm shift in the way businesses operate, emphasising the need for continuous learning and improvement.

An integral part of the LEAN methodology is the Gemba Walk (or Process Walk). The term ‘Gemba’ comes from the Japanese word for ‘the real place’, referring to the place where value is created. In business terms, this could be a factory floor, a sales department, or any place where the actual work happens. A Gemba Walk, therefore, is a process where managers and leaders leave their desks and go to the place where work is done to understand the processes better and identify potential areas for improvement.

The Gemba Walk is not a new concept; it has been a part of the LEAN methodology for decades. However, it has gained increased attention in recent years as businesses strive to become more efficient and competitive. The idea of ‘going to the gemba’ is simple, but it represents a significant shift from traditional management practices.

What is a Gemba Walk?

A Gemba Walk is a structured walk through the workplace that enables leaders and managers to observe the actual work process, engage with employees, identify issues, and seek opportunities for improvement. It is a hands-on approach that takes managers away from their desks and into the heart of the organisation’s operations.

A Gemba Walk is not a casual stroll through the workplace. It’s a purposeful observation and listening tour that seeks to understand how work gets done, where there may be inefficiencies or problems, and how these might be addressed. It’s a powerful tool for promoting continuous improvement and fostering a culture of openness and engagement within an organisation.

At its core, a Gemba Walk is about respect for people and their work. It acknowledges that the people who do the work are the ones best placed to improve it. By observing and listening to employees, leaders can gain a deep understanding of the work process and identify opportunities for improvement.

What does a Gemba Walk Achieve?

A Gemba Walk achieves several things. Firstly, it breaks down barriers between management and employees. By leaving their offices and engaging directly with employees, managers can gain a better understanding of the work process and the challenges employees face. This fosters a culture of openness and mutual respect within the organisation.

Secondly, a Gemba Walk can identify issues and inefficiencies that might not be apparent from a desk or a meeting room. By observing the work process in action, managers can identify bottlenecks, waste, and other problems that may be hindering productivity.

Finally, a Gemba Walk can identify opportunities for improvement. By engaging with employees and understanding their work, managers can identify areas where processes can be streamlined, waste can be reduced, and productivity can be improved. This can lead to significant cost savings and improvements in efficiency.

How does a Gemba Walk work?

A Gemba Walk involves a series of steps. Firstly, a team of managers or leaders is assembled. This team will conduct the Gemba Walk, observing the work process, engaging with employees, and identifying issues and opportunities for improvement.

The team then develops a plan for the Gemba Walk. This might involve deciding which areas of the workplace to visit, what to look for, and how to engage with employees. The team might also decide on a focus for the Gemba Walk, such as a specific work process or issue.

The team then conducts the Gemba Walk, observing the work process, engaging with employees, and documenting their observations. They might ask questions to understand the work process better, but they should avoid suggesting improvements or criticising the work process. The aim of the Gemba Walk is to observe and understand, not to impose solutions.

After the Gemba Walk, the team reviews their observations and identifies issues and opportunities for improvement. They then develop a plan to address these issues and improve the work process.

Explaining the Concept to Employees

Before conducting a Gemba Walk, it’s crucial to explain the concept to employees. Some might feel threatened or uncomfortable with the idea of managers observing their work. It’s essential to communicate that the aim of the Gemba Walk is not to criticise or find fault, but to understand the work process and identify opportunities for improvement.

It can be beneficial to involve employees in the planning process. By giving them a say in how the Gemba Walk is conducted, you can help alleviate any fears or concerns they might have. It’s also a good opportunity to stress the importance of their input and expertise in improving the work process.

Finally, it’s crucial to follow up on the Gemba Walk. Employees need to see that their input is valued and that action is being taken to address any issues identified. This can help foster a culture of continuous improvement and engagement within the organisation.

How to conduct a simple Gemba Walk

The Gemba Walk is a key tool in organisational improvement and efficiency. It involves a structured observation of a workplace process, involving the employees in the process, and addressing any issues that are identified.

Gemba Walk or Process Walk
  1. Pick a Process to Walk: Start by selecting a specific process to observe. This could be any process that is critical to the organisation’s operation or one that has been facing challenges.
  2. Create a High Level Map: Once the process is chosen, create a high-level map of it. This helps in understanding the workflow and identifying potential areas of concern.
  3. Identify people who work in the process: The next step is to identify the people who are involved in the selected process. This includes everyone from the front-line workers to the managers.
  4. Select Interviewees and Process Walkers: Choose individuals from the identified pool of people who would be interviewed during the walk. Also, select the team that will walk the process.
  5. Create the schedule and walk the process: Create a schedule for the walk, ensuring that it doesn’t interfere with the regular workflow. Once the schedule is in place, start walking the process, observing, and engaging with the employees.
  6. Debrief Walk Observations: After the walk, debrief the observations. This involves discussing what was seen, any potential issues, and possible solutions.

The Gemba Walk can be conducted at different times to get a comprehensive understanding of the process. It’s also important to document the observations for further analysis and tracking progress. Despite challenges like employee resistance and the need for a focused plan, with the right approach, a Gemba Walk can yield substantial improvements in an organisation’s efficiency and productivity.

Questions to ask on a Gemba Walk

Here are ten questions you can ask during a Gemba Walk to better understand the process and identify areas for improvement:

  1. What is the purpose of this process?
  2. What do you do when something goes wrong?
  3. How do you measure success in this process?
  4. What are the most common obstacles you face in this process?
  5. How do you ensure quality in your work?
  6. How do you prioritize your tasks?
  7. What tools or resources do you need to perform your work?
  8. How do you communicate with other team members?
  9. What are the biggest challenges you face in completing your work?
  10. How do you think this process could be improved? 

By asking these questions, you can gain a better understanding of the process and identify areas for improvement. Remember to listen to the answers and ask follow-up questions to clarify any misunderstandings.

Can you conduct a Gemba Walk remotely?

Yes, conducting a Gemba Walk remotely can be a viable option, especially with the rise of remote work and digital technologies. Here are some steps to conduct a remote Gemba Walk:

  1. Plan Ahead: Define the purpose and objective of the walk, decide on the area of focus, and schedule a suitable time with all the participants.
  2. Use Technology: Leverage video conferencing tools and virtual whiteboards. If possible, use cameras in the workspace to observe the work process in real-time.
  3. Engage with Employees: Interaction is key, even in a remote setting. Ask questions, gather feedback, and involve employees in the process.
  4. Document Observations: Record all observations, findings, and suggestions for improvements. These can be shared with the team after the walk.
  5. Follow up: Don’t let the walk end without a follow-up plan. Assign tasks, set deadlines, and track progress.

The challenges remain the same as an in-person Gemba Walk, including resistance from employees, maintaining focus, and ensuring follow-through. However, with careful planning and execution, a remote Gemba Walk can be just as effective as an on-site one.

Important Steps to Consider When Doing a Gemba Walk

Prepare the Team

Before embarking on a Gemba Walk, it’s crucial to prepare the team. This involves choosing the right people for the walk, briefing them on the purpose of the walk and what to look for, and ensuring they understand the process.

Have a Plan

A Gemba Walk should not be a random stroll through the workplace. It’s essential to have a plan, including which areas to visit, what to observe, and how to engage with employees. The plan should be flexible enough to allow for unexpected observations or conversations, but structured enough to ensure the walk is focused and purposeful.

Follow the Value Stream

When conducting a Gemba Walk, it’s crucial to follow the value stream – that is, the sequence of activities that create value for the customer. This can help identify bottlenecks, waste, and other issues that might be hindering productivity.

Document Observations

During the Gemba Walk, it’s essential to document observations. This can help identify patterns, track changes over time, and provide a basis for future improvement efforts.

Ask Questions

Asking questions is a crucial part of the Gemba Walk. It’s an opportunity to understand the work process better and engage with employees. However, it’s important to ask open-ended questions that encourage discussion and exploration, rather than leading questions that imply criticism or suggest solutions.

Don’t Suggest Improvements on the Walk

While it might be tempting to suggest improvements during the Gemba Walk, it’s important to resist this urge. The aim of the walk is to observe and understand, not to impose solutions. Suggestions for improvement should be saved for the review process after the walk.

Walk as a Group

Walking as a group can foster a sense of teamwork and shared purpose. It can also ensure that different perspectives are considered and that the walk is as comprehensive and effective as possible.

Focus on the Process, Not People

When conducting a Gemba Walk, it’s crucial to focus on the process, not the people. The aim is to understand and improve the work process, not to criticise or blame individuals.

Try at Different Times

Conducting Gemba Walks at different times can provide a fuller picture of the work process. It can help identify issues that might only occur at certain times or under certain conditions.

Document Observations

Finally, it’s crucial to document observations during the Gemba Walk. This can provide a record of what was observed, which can be useful for future reference and for tracking progress over time.

Challenges to the Gemba Walk

While a Gemba Walk can be a powerful tool for continuous improvement, it’s not without its challenges. One of the main challenges is resistance from employees. Some might feel threatened or uncomfortable with the idea of managers observing their work. It’s crucial to communicate the purpose of the Gemba Walk clearly and involve employees in the process to alleviate these concerns.

Another challenge is ensuring the Gemba Walk is focused and purposeful. Without a clear plan, it can degenerate into a random stroll through the workplace. It’s important to have a plan, including which areas to visit, what to look for, and how to engage with employees.

Finally, follow-through can be a challenge. It’s not enough to conduct a Gemba Walk and identify issues and opportunities for improvement. These need to be acted upon, and progress needs to be tracked over time. This requires commitment and resources, which can be a challenge in some organisations.

Summary

In conclusion, a Gemba Walk is a powerful tool for promoting continuous improvement and fostering a culture of openness and engagement within an organisation. It involves a structured walk through the workplace to observe the work process, engage with employees, and identify issues and opportunities for improvement. While it can be challenging, with careful planning and follow-through, a Gemba Walk can lead to significant improvements in efficiency and productivity.

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 James Freeman-Gray 

I'm James. A change consultant and organisational development specialist. I've been working in people-centred change for over 15 years. I partner with causes, champions, teams & leaders on projects for social, environmental, technological & human good. If you think I can support in making your change a success, drop me a message. 

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