He's a manufacturing guru who never manufactured anything.

He's a management expert who never managed anything.

He's James P. Womack, manufacturing guru and management expert, who described himself as neither during IndustryWeek's Best Plants conference April 5, where he delivered a keynote speech to an appreciative audience.

The founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute -- and now its senior advisor -- says in truth he's best described as a bystander. And as a bystander he doesn't need to know anything but can question everything.

He's been doing that very thing for more than 30 years in many facilities. Womack says in 2011 alone he already has walked through 11 facilities, not all of which are manufacturing plants. Among the observations such visits have elicited from Womack: "It is amazing the desperate need to take me to a conference room to show me a PowerPoint of what I'm going to see."

Amazing indeed, particularly given Womacks mantra of going to where the real work gets done.

Such was the focus of Womacks hour-long conference presentation, which presented the case for gemba walks. "Gemba Walks" also is the title of the lean guru's latest book, a collection of essays based on years of walking through countless companies.

The gemba walk, he explained, is a management practice to grasp the situation before taking action.

It should take place where value is created. For the IndustryWeek Best Plants conference audience, the gemba frequently is the production floor, but Womack pointed out it could just as easily be customer support, engineering, or elsewhere.

Value is always created at the bottom, however. That's not an ode to the working people, just a fact, Womack said.

Another fact he shared: Value flows horizontally, yet organizations are organized vertically. "That's a problem," he stated.

How do you take a gemba walk? You select a value stream, Womack says, gather all the managers from all the vertical functions that touch the value stream and walk together.

"If we all took a walk together, we wouldn't have to talk," he suggested.

During the walk, ask about the purpose of the value stream, its process and talk to the people along the value stream

There is no substitute for face time, Womack says.

Ideally, CEOs and COOs participate in the gemba walk, as do customers, suppliers and value-stream leaders. Realistically, it typically falls to whoever is taking responsibility for the value stream, as well as others whose roles directly touch the value stream.

And when do such walks occur? Before commencing a lean transformation, Womack provided as one response. Ultimately, he says, it should occur as often as necessary to grasp the situation.

"The gemba walk is the best way to truly grasp the situation so that good lean things can happen," Womack said. It is a practice you learn by doing and learn from practicing.

Also from the 2011 IW Best Plants Conference:

Staying True to the Toyota Way During the Recession

Manufacturers Need to Speak Up

Leadership Advice From a Major General

2011 IW Best Plants Conference Video: James Womack keynote address