When I was in elementary school I loved field trips. What kid doesn’t? We took field trips to the natural history museum, the planetarium, the state capitol, and a few historical sites. They were all great, but my favorite trips by far were to places a little bit more mundane.
We went to the Hostess factory, a grocery store, and even a local McDonald's. I loved these trips that let us take a peek behind the scenes. I’d eaten my fair share of hamburgers, but never saw or thought much about how they were made. I’d seen meat in the butcher counter, but didn’t know a thing about how it got there. Through my child’s eyes, every bit of what the workers were doing was exciting and new.
You probably know a lot more about what your employees do than I did about packaging a Twinkie, but just like visiting these businesses taught me more about how they work than any amount of lectures or reading could have done, observing your team in their regular workspaces will give you more insight about the health of your processes than you could ever get in a meeting.
The Japanese have a name for this kind of “field trip.” It’s called a Gemba Walk. The word Gemba is Japanese for “the real place.” Practitioners visit the places where work gets done. They observe staff in action and ask questions. They avoid judgment and never suggest changes to processes during the walk - that is done only after a period of reflection and analysis. Although it was initially developed by manufactures, today, managers in many industries find value in the approach.
It is useful to apply some of the principles of a child’s field trip to your Gemba walk.
The workers in the businesses we visited were not intimidated by us (inconvenienced, perhaps, but not intimidated). They knew that we were there to learn, not to judge. It is important that your employees have this same understanding. A Gemba walk should never be punitive.
Lots of Questions
As you can imagine, as a bunch of fifth graders, we had a ton of questions for the workers pumping icing into Ding Dongs. Likewise, a Gemba walker should ask many questions about what is being done, how, and why. By understanding the employee’s answers, rather than just what is documented in the Standard Work or policy manual, managers may uncover opportunities to improve processes or retrain staff.
I think that one of the reasons I enjoyed these trips so much was that we were exposed to new spaces. I’d never seen the stockroom of a grocery store before. The way a McDonald’s kitchen is arranged is precisely perfect for the work that is done. That’s what you want to observe on your Gemba walk. Is the space where the work is being performed perfect for what is being done? Are the hamburger buns at hand when needed, so to speak? Defects in workspace, like defects in processes can introduce waste, opportunity for error and worker frustration. They should be noted for future improvement.
I don’t think that kids today have as many opportunities for these kinds of field trips and that’s too bad. There is no substitute for first hand observation. Gemba walks are a powerful tool for uncovering opportunities for improvement and strengthening relationships with front line employees. You don’t even need a permission slip or a yellow bus.
Download this free guide to learn how to have Gemba Walks that actually result in improvement: