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Gemba Walks: Workplace improvement from a new perspective

Ask The Experts | By | 28 Feb 2023 | 5 minute read

two manufacturing plant supervisors conducting a gemba walk

Anyone who has seen an episode of the Emmy award-winning CBS reality show Undercover Boss is familiar with how shocked CEOs are and how much they learn when they go to where the work is being performed and observe what happens.

Often, the perception and attitude they have at the beginning of the show are vastly different from the one they hold at the end. Their heart is often softened by the hard-working and dedicated single parents struggling to put their child through school or cover medical bills. They are equally shocked by the egotistical supervisor who disrespects employees and customers alike and proves to be very adept at disregarding policies, processes, and procedures. All the while they get to experience the ingenuity, innovation, and outside-the-box thinking of some of their brightest yet unrecognized talent.

The fact that this concept is intriguing enough to make a reality TV show out of is somewhat of an indictment of our current predominant management style. This is, of course, not to discount the appeal of seeing someone down on their luck be rewarded for their hard work or a tyrant getting what is coming to them.

I suppose, in a more perfect world, it would be commonplace for leaders to go and see for themselves firsthand all the positive and negative things that go on every day in their business. Doing so would certainly go a long way toward creating a culture of trust, respect, and empathy and fostering an atmosphere of continuous improvement.

What is a Gemba Walk?

It should come as no surprise that this idea is not a new one and, in fact, was formalized by Lean practitioners decades ago. Engineer Taiichi Ohno, of the Toyota Motor Corporation and one of the founding fathers of the Toyota Production System, is credited with developing what is known as the Gemba Walk. The term Gemba means “the real place” and is derived from the Japanese term “Genchi Genbutsu,” which means “Go and see for yourself.”

This idea is not just reserved for CEOs. For a manager and leader to be in the best position to make decisions and drive positive change, they must have a deep, firsthand understanding of how the work is performed and the conditions it is performed under.

It is based on the understanding that spreadsheets and written reports only tell part of the story. Reports often provide inadequate context, and statistics do not give a leader the “why” behind the results. Because of this, decisions are often made based on assumptions, one side of a story purely on results without knowing how they were achieved, regardless of whether they are positive or negative.

How to do a Gemba Walk in 8 steps

Gemba walks are, like most Lean concepts, quite simple in design. However, it is a little more complicated than just observing the work. The reasons behind the steps of a Gemba walk also run deeper than just the appreciation gained from the observation.

There is a specific process and purpose to the steps. Depending on your sources you may find anywhere from 7 to 12, but in general, it looks like this:

Step 1: Prepare your team

Both the observers and the people being observed should understand the purpose of the Gemba walk and what you’re trying to achieve. There should be no surprises and it should not come across as an inspection or an audit but as a learning opportunity.

Keeping teams cross-functional is the best way to understand the upstream impacts and downstream effects of the process being walked.

Step 2: Have a plan

Prepare questions in advance and know who you are observing and what they do. You should also know where the inputs come from for the process and where the outputs go. Having a cross-functional team will shed light on these things.

Step 3: Walk the flow of value

Value flows through a process as raw materials and information is transformed from inputs into outputs. These outputs become the inputs for the next steps.

Walk the process in this order to understand how everything flows, where the handoffs occur, and where the process imbalances happen. The imbalance will be evident by either downtime or inventory.

Step 4: Scrutinize the process, not the people

It’s easy to jump to conclusions and assume something is wrong because someone is not following the process, but the opposite is usually true. Something is more often wrong because they did follow the process, and it’s the process that needs fixing.

Step 5: Log your observations

It is a good idea to have a central repository for Gemba Walk results. For this purpose, using a digital repository with analytic capabilities would be best.

Tools like SafetyCulture (formerly iAuditor) will allow you to see recurring trends in observation findings and employee feedback. It also allows for the quick retrieval of archived information as reference for future Gemba Walks.

Step 6: Ask questions

During Gemba Walks, don’t assume you know why something is happening. Do the opposite, instead—assume you don’t and have someone explain it to you. You are guaranteed to learn something about a process if you ask the person who performs it every day how it works.

After all, it’s not unusual for that person to have repeatedly offered suggestions to improve the process. But sometimes, they have given up on doing so because no action has been taken as a result.

Step 7: Keep your focus on understanding the process and not fixing it.

Observers are there to identify opportunities for improvement that align with the company’s strategic objectives and resource constraints. For this reason, listening to frontline staff and field personnel is crucial to this approach.

After all, the people who perform the process day in and day out will probably have the best ideas on how to improve it. Observers just need to focus on learning where the problems are.

Step 8: Follow through on the results of the observation.

The final step in a Gemba walk is to follow through on the observation results with the team and the people who were observed. It is important to track all resulting action plans and action items to closure and communicate not only the status of the actions being taken but of those not taken and why.

Best practices for Gemba Walks

If you’re a manager who wants to carry out this procedure, it’s best to select a strategically important process and perform a Gemba Walk. Every time I would go into the field and work with frontline employees, I learned something, and my perceptions of how things worked were challenged. You cannot rely on secondhand information to paint a complete picture of any situation, especially one as critical as those that affect your customers.

For this reason, having conversations with your staff is essential for effective Gemba Walks. Talk to your front-line employees and ask them to explain to you what is going well and what challenges they face. Ask them the reasons for both and find out if there is an action that can be taken to optimize or mitigate their feedback.

Finally, and most importantly, ask them about how they feel about their jobs. Do they feel heard? Do they feel that their input is valued? Do they take a personal interest in the success of the company and making it better? Try to understand them on a personal level and use this as an opportunity to build relationships. You may never know how big an impact that may have on a person, but you do know that only good things can come from it.

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