Most leaders who adopt the continuous improvement management style focus mainly on performance indicators that can be measured for good reasons.
Metrics like cost, production throughput, error rates, customer satisfaction scores, and other quantifiable business metrics guide decisions related to improvement priorities and provide insight into the impact of implemented changes.
However, many factors that contribute to these measurable KPIs can't be easily assessed in a spreadsheet or through PowerPoint slides. Instead, leaders must see the real workplace situation, up close and personal, to understand process problems and improvement opportunities. To do this, Lean leaders used a technique called gemba walks.
The word "gemba" means "the real place" in Japanese or the place where the work is done. When performing a gemba walk, the leader or manager goes to the workplace to gather first-hand insight into the process. At first glance, this may remind you of the technique of Management By Walking Around (MBWA), but it is different because gemba walks are focused, specific, and intentional; they are not a random walk that might be done at a scheduled time.
The Basics of a Gemba Walk
Gemba walks, or visits, are a powerful element of continuous improvement because they bring leaders to where the action is. Managers get to assess compliance with standard work processes and understand why they might not be consistently applied (hint: don't blame the workers). They also get an opportunity to witness how employees approach problem-solving and how well they collaborate.
A gemba walk has three fundamental elements:
Go see: The first rule of gemba is to go to the place where work is done. The workplace might be a factory floor, an emergency room, a warehouse, a construction site, an office, or any other physical place where work processes are performed. Being present helps leaders determine if processes are resulting in the intended outcomes. They can also gauge the team's engagement level and determine if the right resources are available when and where they are needed.
Of course, COVID-19 and the switch for many to remote work may make a physical visit to the gemba more difficult if not impossible. In that case, the other elements take on even more importance. For example, video meetings are a valuable tool for creating a connection that naturally flows from a face-to-face conversation.
Ask why: A gemba walk is the perfect time to get to the root causes of process problems and unnecessary waste. Rather than suggesting solutions, leaders use tools like the 5 Whys to ensure that the problem's underlying root cause is uncovered.
Show respect: Gemba walks aren't the time for assessing the performance of individuals. Instead, they are about partnering with employees to understand how processes could be improved. Good leaders encourage team members to be involved in understanding and solving problems and facilitate problem-solving instead of just throwing solutions at people.
Gemba Walk Goals
Each gemba walk should have a target process or processes to be observed. It is also common for a gemba walk to have a theme related to a strategic improvement initiative. Gemba walks may also be part of a kaizen event. Some themes to consider include the following:
Whether or not you choose one of these themes, you still want to identify your goals and be clear about what you are looking for during each walk. What performance gaps are you trying to understand? What are you trying to learn and why?
Gemba Walk Checklist Questions
While many of your questions will come up naturally during each walk, it is smart to prepare some in advance so you'll have an excellent place to start. Think about the eight wastes of Lean and the 5S workspace management technique as you put your list of questions together.
We put a few examples into four areas; process analysis, problem-solving, resource needs, and innovation. Of course, your questions will vary according to your business and the observed process, but these are some good jumping-off points.
Innovation and Alignment
Tips for a Successful Gemba Walk
Armed with this checklist, your gemba walk should be a revealing and helpful use of your valuable time. In addition to crafting some questions in advance, there are a few other tips to help get the most out of the technique:
Prepare the team in advance: Team members can see it as threatening or punitive if they don't understand the purpose of your gemba walk. Therefore, in advance, you should explain the intent of a gemba walk and frame it as an opportunity for you and your team members to become better connected rather than a performance evaluation.
Focus on the handoffs between processes or functions: In most organizations, the most significant opportunities for improvement occur when work is moved from one role or process to another. If you follow the value stream, you will likely find wasteful or error-prone process handoffs that can be improved.
Always focus on process, not people: Gemba walks are not meant to be performance assessments. Instead, they are an opportunity to understand how folks work and their challenges. While you may uncover individual mistakes, the point is to pull back and question how to create a plan that lets everyone do their best work.
Document what you see: Because you will not be making any immediate changes during the gemba walk, creating a record of what you observe that can guide your future reflections is crucial. Improvement management software is ideal for this because it allows you to collect your thoughts as well as any images or other documents that will be helpful.
Follow up after the walk: Employees will undoubtedly be curious about your impression of your visit and want to know what changes, if any, will result from the practice. Be sure to openly discuss what you learned, how it made you feel, and what opportunities for improvement you observed. Invite employee input before any changes are made.
In addition to helping you identify process problems and opportunities for improvement, gemba walks should also improve your relationship with team members who will appreciate your attention and respect.