What is a good Gemba walk?

How to get the most out of visiting your teams

One of the fundamental KAIZEN™ principles is to get away from behind the laptop, the desktop, and out of the cloud(s?) and "go to Gemba". This forms part of the way a Lean organisation is managed and led but is also a critical part of improvement projects. But what do we do when we go to the gemba?

During a recent improvement workshop at a multi-national client I posed this question to the participants to prepare them for Gemba observations. They came up with some interesting answers and I am posting a few here (in random order) with some additional comments for our consideration.

1. The RIGHT PEOPLE should be on the Gemba walk. From operator level right through to people in other teams/ functions that is effected by the processes in this gemba. An external customer can even participate.

2. Require a basic UNDERSTANDING of the process investigated prior to the Gemba walk. Have an overview ready of the process/ area to be visited - resources like printed current-state process maps, a floor plan of the Gemba, sample products, and examples of documents and templates, can greatly enhance insight.

3. Right SIZE: the group should not be too big. Participants can easily get "lost" during the Gemba walk and stop contributing and asking questions or forget to observe the gembutsu (the resources/ tools used to create value). Depending on the type of Gemba, communication can become difficult (muri) or Gemba people can be distracted by larger groups.

4. The right TIMING: ensure you visit the Gemba while "value" is being created (or being impeded); with other words, people are busy performing their daily tasks. Occassionally it might be beneficial to visit the Gemba during a tea break, lunch break, or downtime, but as a guideline we should be visiting while the process is in full operation. This is a good way to see the inefficiencies and problems first hand. 

5. QUESTIONS: ask many questions to understand the Gemba and gembutsu (the resources used to create value for a customer or causing waste). For the group to ask good questions the workshop facilitator should have a good understanding of the Lean tools to guide them to see the opportunities for improvement. A "tour guide" (usually not the same person as the workshop facilitator) should be someone familiar with the processes and capable of insightful answers.

6. ENGAGE the Gemba people: ask many questions related to their work, the problems and frustrations they face, as well as how they feel. Encourage Gemba people to willingly expose their problems, inefficiencies, and frustrations. However, if the management style is the traditional, non-lean type, the lack of trust and low staff morale will most probably prevent this. Lean leadership is required to change this culture in the medium to long term by starting today!

7. Be PERSONABLE: kind and respectful attitudes, emotions, words and actions can contribute a lot in getting Gemba people to "open up" about the problems in their processes. Remember, they are not machines - show empathy and a genuine interest in people.

8. RECORD key observations. This may include written waste observations, photos, videos, and diagrams.

9. REFLECT about the findings after the Gemba walk. Record the waste, losses, and improvement opportunities to ensure the situation is "changed for the better" (kaizen).

I only listed a few comments the participants made on flipcharts during a brainstorming exercise. What can you add to this list?

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