I’m sure most of you reading this have at some point in your career heard the term Gemba and its translation to “the real place.” I like to think of it as simply where work occurs. The Gemba walk process is just that -- taking a walk through Gemba.
The topic is often covered in articles and presentations, with the common theme involving leadership going to the floor and “seeing” what’s going on. This is a proven process that is time well spent by any mid- to high-level manager or leader to 1) be seen and 2) gain an understanding of the true pulse of the factory floor. Remember that a Gemba walk doesn’t always have to involve the factory floor; your Gemba could involve an office setting.
Going on a Gemba walk is an opportunity to capture topics and concerns pertaining to how effective your facility (factory or office) is performing from a shop-floor perspective. This is a little different from what you get from your daily review of performance metrics. Before we discuss what comes after, let’s look at what it takes to prepare and execute an effective walk through your Gemba.
In preparation and execution of a Gemba walk:
- Have a theme or topic for your Gemba walk; however, avoid preparing questions beforehand. A theme could be based on performance (good or bad) or due to a customer’s complaint or praise. Walking with a theme and having discussions with people in Gemba related to something they have recently heard or been impacted by sends a powerful message: The organization cares enough to spend time learning from, and spending time with, people in Gemba.
- Depending on the size of your factory, have a planned route. In larger facilities it’s wise to keep track of where you’ve been so as not to spend too much time away from one area. Sometimes the theme will dictate your route, and in smaller work places it’s fine to simply walk, watch and listen.
- Be on the lookout for waste and seek input from people in Gemba. They most likely know far more about what’s going on than you’ll ever know from looking at charts and sitting in meetings.
- Ask open-ended questions. Try to avoid asking questions that people would answer with a simple yes or no.
- Write down what you see and hear, and note who you talk to. Most leaders at some point facilitate or at least participate in all-hands meetings or other settings where large groups are pulled together. This is a perfect time to mention some of the dialog during past Gemba walks.
You’ve completed your Gemba walk, so what happens now? In past experiences working with clients and peers alike, the time immediately following the walk comes down to the notion that I’ve “checked the box” or “whew, glad that’s over, it’s a mess out there” or “wait till I get my hands on…” and then it’s off to the next meeting to pound the operations folks on what you saw or, worse yet, what you heard. Not the most effective use of your time in Gemba. Imagine what your workforce goes through upon such actions coming out of your time on the floor.
Now let’s look at what an effective post-walk process consist of.
For starters, ask the following questions: Where did your walk take you and what did you see? Whom did you speak with and what did you hear? These are fundamental questions you should ask yourself when you have completed your Gemba walk. A Gemba walk that ends once the walk is over is like a meeting that yields no actions on the topic discussed. Why did the meeting take place at all – thus why did I just go on this walk?
The following outlines an effective approach for getting the most out of your post-Gemba walks.
Post-Gemba walk, follow-up process:
- After your walk, spend some time reflecting and capture key takeaways from your time at Gemba.
- Think Value vs. Non-Value (Waste).
- Take time to categorize your thoughts, findings and discussion points, and within a week or so provide feedback to employees on your walks. The feedback would be what you heard or saw and, more importantly, what you and your leadership team plan to do to address any concerns. Be careful in timing your communication. Communicating too early without having enough time to fully understand the issues could lead to even bigger issues. And don’t wait too long. People may feel you’ve simply “checked the box.”
- Use Pareto and/or trend charts for evaluation as you continue your walks over time.
- Types of Waste encountered (the eight wastes of lean).
- Over Production – making more than customer demand
- Over Processing – there is such a thing as over-delighting your customers.
- Too Much Inventory – goods between processes often show bottlenecks.
- Defects/Re-Work – look at what’s in the trash; it may surprise you.
- Waiting/Delays – people not adding value due to a variety of delays
- Transporting – look for how your goods move through the process.
- Motion – how much movement do your people expend in the process?
- Loss of creativity – think outside the box and listen to what your people are saying.
- Keep track of how many people you actually made contact with. You can do this using a layout of your plant and pins depicting where you’ve been. Over time, try to make contact with all people in the work place. It may be hard to imagine, but once the expectation is set of you walking through Gemba, most people will actually be looking forward to having you come to their area.
- Types of Waste encountered (the eight wastes of lean).
- Use this information with your leadership team as part of your continuous improvement process. Topics or issues discussed or things you saw during the walk should align with your operations performance metrics in some form, and this should be one basis for future project work to improve safety, quality, cost and delivery.
- Follow up with any individuals who offered key insights or asked questions that you needed more time to answer.
- Once you’ve mastered the Gemba walk process, encourage others within your leadership team to do their own Gemba walks. However don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your walks as the leader aren’t important anymore once your team is effectively walking their areas. As the leader you still need to be seen and heard on a routine basis.
To insure you get the most out of your Gemba walk, make sure you have a good process for preparation and execution. Just as important is having a good post-walk, follow-up process. A robust post-walk, follow-up process closes the loop for an effective Gemba walk and provides meaningful actions that will lead to a better Gemba.
Bill Kirkpatrick is a Senior Lean Subject Matter Expert and certified Prosci Change Management professional with Life Cycle Engineering (LCE). Bill helps clients enhance performance by driving continuous improvement using Lean / Six Sigma techniques. Over 25 years, Bill has played a leading role in transformation through engineering, continuous improvement and operational excellence in various industries including HVAC, metals fabrication, mining and construction equipment, automotive and aerospace. You can reach Bill at [email protected].