As leaders, managers, and employees alike all grapple with the sudden disruption in routine work and life, go easy on yourself. It is going to take some time to adapt. Processes and tools that worked well in the first few months of the year will need to be adjusted, particularly if your team is now all working from home.
Gemba Walks are the perfect example. (If you are unfamiliar with Gemba walks, here’s a good introduction.) If your employees are working from home and practicing physical distancing, you can’t possibly go to the place where work is done.
But Gemba walks are such a valuable improvement tool, and if ever there was a time for identifying ways to make processes run better, this is it. Although the situation isn’t necessarily ideal, there are ways to adapt the Gemba walking technique and still enjoy the many benefits. Here are a few tips.
Keep the Purpose in Mind
While the ultimate goal of a Gemba walk is to identify and later implement opportunities for improvement, showing respect for employees is its guiding principle. You do not need to be in-person to show respect for your employees. The difference between a Gemba walk and a project management meeting, for example, is that Gemba walks focus not on the outputs that are produced, but instead on the way that those outputs are produced.
Respect is demonstrated by communicating concern about whether employees have the tools, resources, and support they need to do their best work. That’s more important than ever right now. While you won’t be able to observe this in person, you can discuss it over the phone.
Incorporate Video Conferencing
Face to face interaction is the most effective form of communication. If you can’t be there, video is an excellent second choice. You probably won’t be able to observe your employees performing their tasks the way you would in an office, but you can discuss what’s adding value and creating friction. When they see you on video, your team will know that they have your undivided attention. There are many inexpensive options for video conferencing, and some companies are even offering it free for the duration of the need for social distancing.
Focus on Process, Not People
Gemba walks, whether physical or virtual, are not performance management meetings, nor are they a way to figure out who to blame. Gemba walks are about the processes that workers use to get things done. In the case of people suddenly working from home, there are probably many new processes or familiar ones that need to be operated differently. If productivity declines, for example, a Gemba walk to assess the processes and identify any roadblocks is a great idea. Blaming the person for not working hard enough is not.
Follow the Standard Process
A remote visit to the Gemba should be taken just as seriously as one done in person. Be sure to plan ahead by identifying the processes you’d like to discuss. Be prepared with questions. Why, where, how, who, and when are always useful.
As you discuss each process, be sure to document your observations. Do you notice opportunities for improvement? Does the discussion lead you to another process that should be evaluated? Are there questions for other people or departments?
Do Not Implement Changes During the “Walk”
With everything changing so quickly and uncertainty all around, it will be very tempting to implement improvements on the fly. It may be absolutely necessary to innovate more rapidly than usual and take risks that might have seemed too big weeks ago, but don’t get into the habit of making changes during a Gemba walk. Collect your observations, reflect, and then consider changes. There might not be time for a full PDSA cycle, but at the minimum, know what you want to achieve with the change and how you will measure the result.
This is a tough situation, but it is also an opportunity to evolve our practices to meet the current need. Until we can all get back to the Gemba, you can support your employees by continuing to be interested in how things are done, not just what is done.