In talking with business leaders over the years, we’ve learned that Gemba Walks are a bit like eating better and getting more exercise. Everyone agrees that they are good for you, but many folks don’t get around to them. It isn’t that these leaders are lazy or unmotivated - quite the opposite. They are often busy responding to the crisis of the day and juggling multiple pressing priorities. Gemba Walks get pushed down to the bottom of the list because they aren’t associated with a deadline or urgent deliverable. But in an ironic twist, one of the best ways to ensure that you have time to visit the Gemba is to spend more time visiting the Gemba.
Empowered & Engaged Employees Reduce the Burden on Leaders
One of the main purposes of walking the Gemba is to create a more meaningful connection with employees and to signal that they are in a better position to recognize problems and suggest solutions than anyone else in the organization. When leaders spend time in the places where work is done, be it a factory floor, emergency room, construction site, or office space, employees realize that their work is important and respected. A new level of understanding can quickly be achieved and employees become willing to open up and engage in deeper conversations. An agreement can be reached on what actions employees can take on their own to address issues, and which steps need approval from leadership. You may find that many of the issues that take up your time can be competently handled by your team without your involvement.
More Gemba Visits Mean Fewer Emails, Reports, and Meetings
Many of the activities that take up so much time can be eliminated by Gemba Walks. You don’t need to send emails back and forth or form a committee to hold a meeting to address many common process or workspace issues. A first-hand look can save many hours of reading second or third-hand accounts about an issue. The human brain processes images way more quickly than text, after all. Anything that speeds your understanding of what’s happening on the front lines reduces the amount of time you have to spend trying to figure it out from afar.
Gemba Walks Improve Organizational Alignment and Focus
When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. This common situation leads leaders and employees alike with no good way to say “no” to work that doesn’t move the organization closer to true north. Gemba Walks are an excellent opportunity to discuss the strategic goals of the organization and those breakthrough objectives that will change the game. Leaders have the opportunity to observe potentially less important activities that are preventing necessary forward progress. When those less important tasks are abandoned in favor of truly essential ones, employees and leaders alike find more time to excel at what is most important.
Improvement is Faster and More Effective with Practice
If your team only engages in structured improvement, like a PDSA or DMAIC cycle, occasionally or when there is a pressing crisis, improvement will take longer, involve more meetings, and suck up more of your time than if they get to practice on a regular basis. Because Gemba Walks usually reveal opportunities for incremental improvement they are an effective way to engage the team and get them exercising their improvement muscles so that when the time comes to step up to a hefty challenge, they will be ready. In fact, with this experience you may find that your team needs you to be involved in small, but impactful change less and less, freeing you to work on your strategic priorities.
The cartoon at the top of this post is one of my favorites. The king thinks that only an idiot would interrupt his battle to try to sell him another tool, but that very tool is what could win the battle. You can think of Gemba Walks in the same way. It is hard to pull yourself away from what you are dealing with to take a walk to the front line work space, but it just may be that very walk that reduces some of the demands on your time and makes a little more space in your day.
Because it is such a challenge, we recommend that leaders schedule their Gemba Walks, make others aware of that schedule to increase accountability, and follow through. Once you experience the value you won’t be willing to give them up.