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How to Keep Your Gemba Walks Fresh

Nov. 22, 2023
It’s a challenge to keep the traditional tools we use for continuous improvement or lean efforts fresh and meaningful. 

Who has tried doing a gemba walk and felt over time they just didn’t add much value?  Or that they were OK for a while, but now? 

It’s a challenge to keep the traditional tools we use for continuous improvement or lean efforts fresh and meaningful.  All too often, something like “leader’s standard work” becomes a checklist.  It does not drive meaningful behavior change.I’d like to share three thoughts/actions you might try to keep your gemba walks meaningful. If you find this helps with your walks, you could apply a similar thought process to other improvement tools you use: leader standard work, white boards, team huddle meetings, etc.

What is a gemba walk?  The Lean Enterprise Institute (LEI) defines it as, "a management practice for grasping the current situation through direct observation and inquiry before taking action." Typically, leaders go see what is happening and as a result get more in touch with the reality of how their organization is currently operating.

In 2016 I wrote the book “How to Do a Gemba Walk” because I couldn’t find anything to my satisfaction that guided people on how to use this powerful improvement practice. You don’t have to buy the book. If you do a web search for LinkedIn Slideshare, Gemba Walks and my last name “Bremer,” you can download a free slide deck that describes the three basic steps of doing a walks:

  •           Prepare for the Walk
  • Do the Walk
  • Debrief the Walk

In this article I want to move beyond getting started to how you can keep these walks a worthwhile thing to do? There are three levers anyone can use to keep their walks fresh:

  •      Clarity of Purpose
  • Ask Better Questions
  • Practice

Clarity of Purpose

When people start doing the walks, they often think the purpose is to find problems.  But leaders can quickly be overcome with the amount of problems they find and the time they have available to work on them. So they stop doing walks. It might be necessary when you first start doing walks to have this focus on finding and fixing problems, but you don’t want to get trapped in that space.  It’s not productive over the longer term.

I recently observed an organization’s leadership team doing their walk. They said the purpose of their walk was to show the employees management cares.  It was very well organized, but they did not talk to one employee.  Instead ,they conducted an inspection, making certain everything was where it was supposed to be and their were no safety hazards.   The executed the latter quite well, but it had nothing to do with their stated purpose. Get someone independent of the activity to observe how you walk and debrief how that aligns or (like in this example) does not align with your stated purpose.  Then either change what you are doing (which they did) or restate your purpose for alignment.

You need to give some thoughts to ‘why are you doing a walk?’   What do you expect to change as a result of those walks? A plant manager or senior executive will have a different purpose for their walks than a first-line leader.

The first-line leader might do multiple walks during the day or week.  For example, purpose might cover

  • Tuesday 8 a.m. – Safety walk (or even more specific, such as looking at ergonomics/ reaching for objects)
  • Wednesday 8 a.m. – Progress on existing action items
  • Thursday 8 a.m.  – Standard work observation
  • Friday 8 a.m. – Seek improvement thoughts on reaching next target condition

A plant manager may also do multiple walks during a week or month. Purpose again might differ for each walk

  • Review value flow – collaboration and flow interruptions
  • Review group progress, focus on key priorities, recognize progress
  • Review kaizen implementations sustainment for past six months
  • Review daily management activities - current state, future targets, progress on targets, improvement actions, associate engagement

Although I’m retired, I still give a fair amount of volunteer time to the Association of Manufacturing Excellence (AME) and lead their excellence award activities.  When I walk through an organization, I’m typically trying to understand how value flows (or gets inhibited) in the way an organization operates. So I seek to:

  • Review key priorities – are they clear, are they communicated, are they used?
  • See how the organization is managed day-to-day – just focused on the moment or do activities link to organizational priorities?
  • See key cross-functional interface points—what do internal customer/supplier relationships look like?
  • Learn what issues are addressed and how they go about addressing them
  • Get a feel for employee engagement—look for smiles, eye contact & comfort when asking an associate questions.

A walk needs to have a clearly defined purpose. Otherwise, there is no way to assess how effective the walk is and improve it over time.

Ask Better Questions

As I’ve observed walkers over the years, it’s pretty clear they need to learn how to ask better questions. Questions should be open-ended (generating more than a one-word response) and we should be probing for additional information (that is how both the walker and the participants learn). It’s also important not to interrupt the answers, in order to nurture participants’ critical-thinking skills.

Let’s assume a first-line leader is looking at how a new job gets set up. Questions might include:

  • What’s the job you are/were setting up?
  • What materials/supplies/information were needed and were they easy to access?  Can you show me anything that was difficult?
  • Was anything missing? How often does something like that happen?
  • When were you supposed to start/finish work? Did it start/finish on time?  If no, why not?

In my walks I'll typically ask questions like these:

         How has this white board or leader standard work changed the way you lead over the last year?

  •         What are you doing differently this year vs. last as a result of using this tool?
  • When was the last time something didn’t work the way you expected?
  • What happened?
  • How often does something like that take place?
  • Can you show me? 

Asking questions is how we learn.  It’s also a great way to coach people as you help them develop more critical thinking skills. Good questions can convey humility, and done over time, they help create an environment where people feel safe pointing out problems and finding ways to improve the way work gets done.  We all learn and grow when good questions get asked.

Practice

I’m amazed how often we overlook the importance of practice. When you look at a world-class athlete like Serena Williams, she did not stop practicing after she won her first major championship. The gap between her talent and skill when she started playing tennis was very wide. As she progressed with practice, the gap became much smaller. Later in life, growing older, having a child and continuing to play required new practice routines. 

If your job is leadership, shouldn’t you continuously be practicing to become a more effective leader?  I think so. But how many of us do it in a conscientious way, where we focus on the “purpose” of what we do and the way we do it?  And then lay out specific targets to get better at getting better. What is your practice plan?

        Write down a purpose

       Did you accomplish it? Was it the right purpose?

        How are you holding yourself accountable?

       Publicly post a metric

       Periodic debriefs

        What are your plans/tactics to get better at doing this?

       Input from peers/team members

       Observing others 

Give some thought to the way you lead and the improvement tools you use and find some simple ways to measure your progress. In the case of gemba walks, you should see something like this:

  • People are talking more than leaders
  • Whatever you’re trying to change is changing
  • The walker looks forward to doing the walk
  • Processes are becoming more stable over time

I wish you all the best in your life’s journey and encourage you to practice finding ways for you and your associates to get better at getting better. When you elevate the people around you—be that in your work, your community, or, importantly, your family—life is great and you are clearly doing meaningful work. 

Michael Bremer is volunteer lead for AME’s Excellence Award activities. He is the author of “How to Do a Gemba Walk” and a book in-progress, “Learn to See the Invisible.”

 

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