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When Good Gemba Walks Go Bad

Posted by Maggie Millard

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Mar 15, 2017 6:19:00 AM

Stressed businessman.jpegFujio Cho is the honorary chairman of the Toyota Motor Corporation. He boils Lean leadership down to three simple responsibilities:

  1. Go see.
  2. Ask why.
  3. Show respect.

If you are wondering exactly what you should do on your next Gemba walk, there you have it. Go see. Ask why. Show respect. Gemba walks give leaders the opportunity to observe the processes that add value in their natural habitat. After all, talking about what happens on a factory floor or an emergency room in a board room is very different than observing work at the source.

But like any other continuous improvement technique, the devil is in the details when it comes to Gemba walks. The best of intentions can be undermined by mistakes in execution. Here’s how a good Gemba Walk can go wrong.

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Failure to Communicate

It is essential to communicate the purpose of Gemba walks to employees in advance, especially if the practice is new to your organization. Everyone should understand exactly what they can expect and how they can best contribute. Gemba walks should never be confused for surprise inspections and they should not feel punitive. Rather, they should be positioned as a way to improve working conditions and to smooth the flow of value to the customer. Communication is essential to respect.

Free Guide to Gemba Walks


Focus on Performance Over Process

Certainly, leaders must address performance issues when they arise, but a Gemba walk is not the right moment for addressing people concerns. Gemba walks are about process improvement, not performance management. The focus should be on how the work is done; how employees interact with the workspace, tools, and each other; and the availability of needed resources. Leaders should assess adherence to Standard work, not to penalize deviation, but to determine if the Standard needs adjustment or if additional training is required. In short, a Gemba walk should never feel punitive. It should always be a cooperative endeavor and the perfect opportunity to ask why.

Action Without Reflection

The goal of a Gemba walk is to identify opportunities for improvement, but that does not mean that changes should be made on the fly. Quite the contrary, process adjustments should not be made during a Gemba walk. Change should only happen after a period of reflection and analysis. It often makes sense to start a PDSA cycle or utilize the A3 technique. When possible, the people who do the work should be engaged in finding solutions and implementing improvements.

A Narrow View of Gemba

Like many other Lean techniques, the practice of Gemba walks started on the factory floor, but it has been adapted for use in industries of all kinds. The Gemba is anywhere that work gets done. It could be a medical office, classroom, or construction site. Information work should not be neglected when it comes to Gemba walks. There is value in observing how software developers, accountants, sales reps and others add value.

Inconsistency of Leadership

When we point out inconsistency as a problem, we don’t mean to say that Gemba walks should always occur on a regular schedule. Quite the opposite, actually, there is value at observing work at different times of day and days of the week. What we mean by inconsistency is the common problem of starting a Lean program or technique like Gemba walks only to see it lose momentum over time.

Robert B. Hafey, is an operations and Lean professional who spent over 40 years working in manufacturing at U.S. Steel Corporation and Flexco. In his book, Lean Safety Gemba Walks: A Methodology for Workforce Engagement and Culture Change, he explains:

“It is common knowledge in the Lean community and often quoted by Lean proponents and critics that successful Lean transformations are few and far between. Why is that? Most often because Lean is thought of as a program rather than a management philosophy, and used by management to reduce labor costs. The second and equally harmful reason is that management fails to have the will to stick with Lean. It takes a strong will and a strong leader to start and stick with a plan to redirect a business culture for it is always a multi-year effort that requires honest discussions and often, difficult decisions. Lean doesn’t fail – it is always management that fails. In these failed attempts, Lean is viewed as yet another ‘flavor of the month’ program that yields no long-term benefits.”

In order for Gemba walks to be meaningful, they must be part of a larger organizational commitment to improvement over the long term. They work wonders in a culture that values employee input and collaboration.

Leaders can easily avoid these common mistakes and get the most out of this important Lean technique.

Topics: Gemba Walk

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