During a typical Gemba Walk, a manager or supervisor visits the place where work gets done. He or she observes as processes and tasks are carried out, asks questions, and reflects on what was seen. After careful consideration, they would ask for (or potentially offer) ideas for improvement or begin a PDSA cycle. This is an effective way for managers to get a first-hand look at what is happening with their team and to get vital feedback.
But could the approach be used to help employees who are not managers get a better understanding of the overall flow of value through the organization and where their work fits in? We believe that it can.
The Gemba Defined
The word “gemba” is Japanese for “the real place.” If there is an earthquake and a reporter goes to the scene, she is said to be reporting from the gemba. Gemba Walks became a popular Lean manufacturing technique because even the best reports and descriptions about what is happening on the factory floor can’t replace an in-person look.
It is important to note that every type of business has gemba. Wherever work gets done is gemba, whether it is a factory floor, a hospital emergency room, a retail store, or a software developer’s cubicle. We’d even argue that the place where the product is used is gemba as well. This might be a consumer’s home, a business to business buyer’s office, or the place a hospital patient is recovering.
Almost Everyone is Both a Customer and a Supplier
Almost every business consists of a series of activities or processes that add value, usually in a sequential order, to raw materials or ideas until they are packaged and delivered to a customer. Most people are internal customers of one process and suppliers to another. This is easy to imagine in a factory, but it happens in all types of businesses. Here are a few examples:
- A medical assistant in a physician’s office relies on the front desk staff to schedule appointments and register patients. She is in effect their customer. In turn, the provider relies on her to update the patient’s history, take their vital signs and prepare the patient for the exam, making her the “supplier” for the provider.
- A marketing professional relies on the product team to provide information about new products and services. He is their customer. He then transforms that information into useful website pages, brochures, advertisements, and other materials that generate leads and enable the sales team.
- An accountant receives invoices and expense reports from various people within the organization. He then generates payments and enters the information into the accounting system, which the controller and CFO will use to make decisions about the financial health of the company.
How Gemba Walks Can Help
If your organization practices Value Stream Mapping, you probably already have a good idea of how each team member accepts inputs and generates outputs. With this knowledge, it only makes sense that every employee should understand the process that comes before and after the work that they do. In the same way that managers and supervisors benefit from observing the work where it happens, other employees can speed the path to understanding by doing the same.
Remember, opportunities for improvement aren’t addressed during a Gemba walk, only after a period of reflection and analysis, so there is no risk of employees going rogue and suggesting unhelpful process changes. Rather they get the opportunity to see what goes into the inputs they receive and what happens to the value they create. They may have excellent ideas for improvement that can be discussed with managers and other stakeholders after the Gemba walk. When visiting the workers who come next in the value chain, they may realize that small tweaks to their own processes would make a big difference to their internal customers.
The External Gemba
As we mentioned earlier, external customers deserve observation as well. It is one thing to tell a customer how to use a piece of software or a product, but quite another to watch them use it in their home or office. Are all of the features that you think add value actually being used? Is the product used in conjunction with another that could be integrated or combined? Are patients getting and taking their prescribed medications? Focus groups and surveys can never answer these questions as effectively as direct observation at the Gemba.
For all of these reasons, we’d argue that Gemba Walks are for everybody.