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What is the right (and wrong) way to do a gemba walk?

PostsProject management
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

May 22, 2020

Practice makes perfect, or so the saying goes. And while it’s true that repeating a task over and over again will help you improve, there is a limit. To advance to new levels, you need to introduce an element of change.

Change is a fundamental part of Lean management, a methodology built on the idea of continuous improvement. The goal is to apply incremental changes that work towards eliminating waste and adding value. ‘Perfect’ is not something to strive for because it’s too final. Instead, it’s better to see improvement as a continually evolving thing.

The Gemba Walk is part of Lean Management and a form of continuous improvement. It’s a process designed to help managers assess work processes and explore opportunities for change.

What does Gemba mean?

Gemba (also known as Genba) is a Japanese term meaning “the actual place.” Japanese TV reporters sometimes refer to themselves as reporting “from the Gemba.”

In business, it refers to the place where value is created. For a news anchor, that would be the studio; for an actor, it would be the stage; and for a factory owner, this would be the factory floor.

What is a Gemba walk?

The Gemba Walk helps managers break routine and explore new avenues for improvement. It does this by helping leaders get to know their team and the work they do a little better, which, in turn, breaks down silos and builds feelings of mutual respect and trust.

Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho famously said the Gemba Walk should consist of three elements: “Go see, ask why, show respect.” Here’s what each of these means.

  1. Go see. This call to action encourages leaders to leave their usual routine and see what’s happening on the Gemba. So if you were Elon Musk, you’d visit the Tesla factory to see what’s going on, talk to employees on the shop floor, and look for things that could be improved. This activity isn’t limited to Founders and CEOs – managers of all levels can do this.
  2. Ask why. The goal is to identify and eliminate wasteful activities to improve value. The best way to do this is to listen to your team and use different problem-solving techniques, such as a fault tree analysis, to identify the root cause of any issues in the process. As ‘ask why’ implies, it’s the manager’s job to ask and listen, rather than talk.
  3. Show respect. When we picture a boss walking around the office, some of us might think of a guy in a suit making golf chat or telling people to ‘get back to work’ before disappearing into their office. This is the opposite of what a Gemba Walk should be. It’s the manager’s job to support their team, locate weak spots in the process (rather than blame people), and work together towards a solution.

How to do a Gemba Walk in 10 easy steps

Preparation is key. If you’ve been in the organization for a while, then define some goals and objectives before you begin. If you’re new to the company, you may benefit from a more unstructured approach. Whichever route you take, there are ten core steps you should follow.

1. Choose your theme.

You can be general or specific, but having a theme will help you focus your questions. Some examples include safety, waste, productivity, and so on. If you track your projects and processes via project management software, you should be able to identify specific areas where there are issues, such as bottlenecks or delays. You can then use this information to inform your theme choice.

2. Prepare a checklist of questions.

It will help you uncover useful information when talking to your team members. Try asking the following:

  • What are you working on at the moment?
  • Are you following a process?
  • Are there any problems with the process?
  • Why do you think there is a problem?
  • How do you think we can fix this issue?
  • What do you think is the root cause of the problem?
  • Who do you report to if there is a problem?
Gemba Walk questions
Image Source

3. Find additional viewpoints.

Others, when placed in your shoes, might ask questions you’d never have thought of yourself. New perspectives could shed a different light on the work, and potentially reveal new opportunities for change. Choose other team members to join you strategically, depending on your overall theme or goals.

A manager from another department could offer valuable insight because they are less familiar with the processes. If your team uses software, products, or equipment, it might be useful to involve a vendor who can offer best practice tips or point out errors. They might also be able to apply feedback to improve their product or service, so it’s more suited to your needs.

People who pitch the product need to know about the work and processes behind its creation, so it may be beneficial to involve a sales rep. They can also offer valuable customer feedback that could help you and your team identify opportunities for improvement.

4. Prepare your team.

Let the team know what’s about to happen, including what will be involved, and why you’re doing it. You could even consider sharing your checklist questions beforehand, so they have time to prepare their answers. Sharing the questions via email also allows people who missed your walk to contribute their thoughts.

5. Focus on processes (not people).

Managers must separate performance evaluations from process evaluations. If you start giving people personal feedback, your focus becomes diluted, and people may become defensive when you want them to be candid and honest.

6. Go where the work is being done.

Put yourself in the heart of the action and follow the value stream. Your physical presence will help you see waste activities and opportunities in different areas of the business you might otherwise miss.

7. Record your observations.

Your focus should be on listening rather than talking. With that in mind, note down your observations (or record interviews on your phone), but don’t offer feedback at this stage – no matter how tempting. You wouldn’t critique a dish before the chef’s finished cooking it. In the same way, you shouldn’t offer your conclusion until you have all the information.

8. Analyze your data.

Before you give feedback to the broader team, you need to organize all that information in a way that helps you achieve continuous improvement – something known as the Gemba Kaizen circle (Kaizen is another way of saying ‘continuous improvement’). This is where problem-solving techniques can come in handy – specifically, root cause analysis or the A3 Problem Solving technique.

You could also hold a secondary meeting between you and different participants to add as many varied viewpoints to your findings as possible.

9. Close the loop with a follow-up.

In the interest of transparency and trust, you must share your findings with your team and those you questioned – even if the results are underwhelming or inconclusive. Doing so is a sign of respect for the people you’ve observed, and will make people more likely to participate in subsequent Gemba walks.

10. Implement and measure.

If you are going to make some changes, walk your team through your reasoning, share the next steps, then begin organizing your team’s schedule so they can adopt the changes quickly and efficiently.

As with all things to do with Lean Management and continuous improvement, it’s essential to measure your progress. Otherwise, how will you know your changes have been a success?

Invest in a cloud-based project management tool with Kanban workflows, targeted notifications, and task-tracking tools that help you (and your team) measure progress. That way, you’ll be able to prove the value of your Gemba Walk – and it’ll be easier to keep your team on track, no matter how many improvements you make.



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