Gemba walks can be one of the most enjoyable and powerful learning opportunities for leaders, but only if they are done in a way that promotes learning and avoids creating tension between managers and frontline staff.
I've written about Gemba walks before, but I wanted to delve deeper into what NOT to do on Gemba walks. If your Gemba walks aren’t going as well as hoped, or if they are causing tension on the front lines, be sure you’re not making any of these mistakes:
- Standing up employees.
While this one sounds self-explanatory, you’d be surprised how many times a busy manager or executive will cancel a Gemba walk when something they feel is more pressing arises.
If you plan a Gemba walk, you must show up. While there may be instances where rescheduling is necessary, make sure it is truly an emergency and not something that could, in fact, wait until afterward. Often, employees must plan and adjust their workflow to accommodate a Gemba walk, so canceling this at the last minute not only wastes this effort, but it can also create the impression that their time is not valued by leadership.
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- Just getting it over with.
In the same way that not showing up devalues the time and efforts of staff, managers, and executives who show up only to rush through the Gemba walk are showing disrespect to the employees they are there to learn from. Don’t rush employees or processes. Doing so not only puts an unnecessary strain on the relationship between the manager and staff persons, but it can also lead to mistakes in the actual process being performed, which then falsifies the entire exercise.
- Being distracted.
Like rushing a Gemba walk to get it over with, going through a Gemba walk while acting distracted – checking email, stopping to make calls, etc. – is disrespectful. The time of the employees leading the Gemba walk is as valuable as management’s time (in fact, some may argue more so, as they are the ones providing direct value to customers) and should be treated as such.
If you are at a Gemba walk, put all other matters aside, invest yourself fully, and take your time to get the most out of the experience and to build a relationship with the employees you’re learning from.
- Teaching instead of learning.
Even worse than not being engaged in the experience is going to a Gemba walk with the idea that this is an opportunity to teach the employee how to do their job better. Taking this approach will quickly make employees feel like they are being criticized and can’t go about their business in the usual way.
A Gemba walk is a time for observation, understanding, and relationship building. While it can be tempting to intervene when you see something happening that could easily be improved, it is not the right time to speak up.
- Reprimanding instead of learning.
While some leaders are tempted to teach employees on a Gemba walk, others may find themselves upset with situations they see and feel a need to stop the work and correct the employee. While you do need to address safety issues if they arise, for other types of mistakes this is simply not the time to change things. The purpose of a Gemba walk is to come to a full understanding of exactly what is happening on the floor, good and bad, for follow up later - it's not the time to enforce policy or standards.
After analysis and reflection, a Gemba walk may very well result in changes to documented procedures, or to addressing training deficit, that are creating deviations from the standard, but this must take place separately.
- Leading the Spanish Inquisition.
While a Gemba walk is the appropriate time to be learning all you can about the process or situation on the floor, and the leader should be engaged and asking questions when needed, it’s important to balance your need to learn with the employee’s need to complete their tasks.
Asking a ton of questions about every detail of the work being conducted seems like a good idea, but it can quickly become frustrating to an employee just trying to get the work done. Impeding the work in this way may also falsify the leader’s observations as processes become held-up.
Ask pressing questions on the spot but save larger questions for after the event. Bringing a notepad to write down all the questions you would like to follow-up with later may help if you find yourself asking questions non-stop.
- Being the creepy stalker.
On the flip-side to not leading the Spanish Inquisition is behaving like a silent stalker. Too many questions can be stressful for employees, but no questions at all can be just as stressful. Avoid making the situation awkward by following the employee around silently taking notes as it will likely make them feel uncomfortable and nervous, again perhaps changing the way they behave so that the process being observed is not the usual process.
As stated earlier, a big part of why Gemba walks are so great is that they help build relationships between managers and executives and frontline employees; no one wants to be friends with a person who doesn’t make the situation comfortable with some small talk and a few questions to show they are interested in what’s happening.
- Getting chummy.
It is true that reprimanding, teaching, and questioning employees endlessly during a Gemba walk can all be counterproductive as employees will feel criticized and self-conscious. It’s also true that being friendly is both important and a good way to counteract those feelings. At the same time, managers should be careful of taking a tone that is too lax.
Gemba is not Management by Walking Around (MBWA). MBWA is an approach that encourages management participation in the work affairs of employees, which often devolves into walking around and slapping people on the back while you say hi. A Gemba walk should be more than just a showy meet and greet with the team. It’s fine to be social, but the goal is to learn about the process.
- Hiding the goal.
We’ve talked a lot about communication here so far, but one piece of the communication between leaders doing the Gemba walk and the employees leading it is perhaps more important than the rest, and that is the goal of the exercise. If all employees don’t understand the purpose of the Gemba walk, which is, ultimately, to improve conditions, processes, and instructions for all employees, then it once again runs the risk of being seen as a punitive process instead of a positive one. Keep the tone positive by clearly communicating that the goal of the Gemba walk is to find opportunities, not to find fault.
- Make it business as usual.
Many leaders have organized personalities and love to make improvement activities a regular part of their schedule. When it comes to Gemba walks, however, variety is key. You do not want to perform Gemba walks at the same times of day and the same days of the week as it may not give you a complete picture of the state of the value stream.
Keeping visits random and unscheduled will prevent employees from preparing too heavily for a leader’s visit, allowing them a real look into what the work process is really like instead of an artificially staged situation.