The Gemba Walk

The pursuit of perfection is often met with obstacles that attempt to break down our path. The beauty of the lean path though, is there is always a tool for our broken path. We may get diverted, but with lean in our pocket we have the ability to continue on with our pursuit, without looking back. The gemba walk for instance is a perfect example of how one can use a specific tool to keep the path towards perfection clear of debris.

gemba walkThe Gemba Walk

The gemba walk (sometimes refereed to as genba) is an observational tool used to describe who, how and where work is being completed. The original Japanese term is gembutsu, which means “real thing,” or “real place.” In a sense, it allows management to step into the front lines of battle to observe their troops in action. A few quick notes on the gemba walk:

  • Observation: The core of the gemba walk is the actual in-person observation of the individual, the process and the location
  • Value-add location: Being at the actual location to observe the process is where one can gain the most insight. Observing from a monitor is not as beneficial.
  • Face-to-face interaction: The value created from employee interaction can not be stressed enough. So much of your lean depends on your culture. A strong culture is dependent upon a trust in the people and their ability to interact with one another in a positive manner.

It is important to note that the objective of the gemba walk is not to solve a specific problem by simply walking around and pointing out negatives. That is simply “management by walking around,” which has turned out to be extremely ineffective and even detrimental in some cases.

Instead, a gemba walk is designed to give management the ability to understand the value stream and its process. When done correctly, the gemba walk will allow one to involve themselves in the actual stream by asking questions and learning directly from the “real thing.” This engagement and willingness to understand a specific situation is such an important part of your continuous improvement process. If you can understand the value stream and the problems that are associated with, the possibility for improvement is endless.

What not to do

As noted earlier, the gemba walk is extremely different than “management by walking around.” A gemba walk should be a positive experience for everyone involved. Simply walking around on the lookout for flaws or imperfections in your staff creates unnecessary tension in your organization’s culture. Use this time to establish a mutual respect and interest in the task at hand.

The gemba walk is also not an opportunity for on the spot fixes. This is a time for observation, input and reflection. The end goal is to make things faster, safer, easier and ultimately better than it was. Taking a step back to interact and listen to the operator’s suggestions, complaints, even simple comments with sincerity will allow you to go back and reflect on the right approach to achieve your end goals.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, when conducting a gemba walk you have to leave all preconceived notions at the door. You have to have a blank slate on a gemba walk and push all mental models that have the ability to cause observational biases aside. Just because a past experience had a specific result (good or bad), does not mean that a similar result will occur with the current situation at hand.

A step in the right direction

The days of problem solving and planning behind the walls of a conference room are hopefully becoming a thing of the past. You simply can’t properly analyze and discuss future design processes in a room full of individuals that rarely get their hands dirty. You have to get out on the floor and work directly with the operators themselves. The more observation and interaction with operators on a gemba walk, the more sustainable your changes will be.

It is important to find a balance in your gemba walk. Knowing how much is too much and how little is just plain ineffective takes time, but will come. If you don’t conduct enough walks, then employees lose focus and don’t take them serious. If you conduct them too often, then employees will think they are not doing a good enough job, creating backlash in the improvement process.

Your lean transformation is never complete. It is an evolving and constantly improving process that takes a strong culture to have continued success. The gemba walk is just as intricate a part as any other lean method you choose to implement. If you can master the walk then your path to perfection will be as smooth as can be.

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