In times of e-workflow, real-time information, remote teams, and AI-supported decision-making, do we still need to go to the floor to see what is happening?
At a recent plant visit, the operation manager proudly told me: “We have full transparency here. I can see everything from my computer. There is no point going to the floor!” Really? As a big proponent of digital operations, I am intrigued by the idea, but I am yet to see an operation where a manager gets all his questions answered solely through digital systems.
The 10 Steps to Effective Gemba Walks
One-Point Lesson (OPL) to learn effective shop floor visits
Applicable to manufacturing and service operations
Walk to review status of work and performance of processes
Understand current reality by capturing information visually
Gemba Walks build trust and relationships with frontline staff
Saves time by reducing emails, reports, information meetings
Social distancing and remote management during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating automation and digitalization, so that managers are reconsidering administrative processes, physical meetings, and visiting the shop floor. This article is about the purpose and process of Gemba Walks today, and likely scenarios for the near future. Let’s start with the basics.
What is Gemba?
Gemba is the Japanese term for “the actual place” where “things happen”. It is the crime scene for a detective, the concert stage for a rock band, the shop floor for a manufacturer, the pool for a swimmer, the lab for a scientist, the pit for a miner, and the classroom for a teacher.
Why Gemba Walk?
The primary objective of a Gemba Walk is bidirectional learning by going to the actual location where things happen. In quality management, engineers and inspectors go to Gemba to understand the full impact of the problem they are analyzing. In operations management, executives leave their offices and go to Gemba to gather information that helps them making better decisions, while building trust and relationships with frontline staff.
What is a Gemba Walk NOT?
A Gemba Walk is not the time to solve problems or to make changes. It is the time for observation and reflection, such as identifying the root causes of a problem. It does not mean we ignore people during the walk. Complaints and suggestions voiced from the frontline should always be acknowledged, captured, and followed-up after the walk. A Gemba Walk is not the time for deep analysis; just record the observation and move on, don’t drill down too deep to avoid getting lost in “rabbit holes”, while missing the big picture.
Go to Computer or Go to Gemba?
The amount of data and the capability to analyze it is increasing on a daily basis. With this growing capability, should we replace human interactions with on-screen analysis? Monitoring conditions and analyzing datasets for trends and correlations allows us to predict problems earlier and more accurately than ever before. But will those sophisticated machines ever replace human interactions? Sitting in an office, assessing reports and attending conferences to discuss gaps and actions are certainly required, but not sufficient to fully understand what happens and why. We need to go to Gemba! That’s why most Lean-pursuing companies use Leader Standard Work (LSW) for managers to go to Gemba for at least 10 minutes, prior to attending the Daily Performance Review (DPR) meeting.
Gemba Walk or just Walking Around?
A Gemba Walk is quite different from “Managing By Walking Around” (MBWA); it follows a firm structure to achieve a specific outcome, while the latter is unfocused and unspecific as its name suggests. Here are the 10 steps to perform an effective Gemba Walk.
Gemba Walk Process
The 10 Steps to Better Shop Floor Management
1. Define the Purpose
To be effective, a Gemba Walk must have a clear purpose and a reason why to do it, so it’s clear what to look for. Examples are opportunity discovery, waste identification, maturity assessment, or root cause analysis with focus on a specific performance gap, customer complaint, process delay, product failure, or non-compliance. The more specific the purpose, the more effective the Gemba Walk. Clearly define the Why!
2. Inform the Group
After defining the purpose, inform people involved to make them feel comfortable and open to the upcoming interactions. Especially those who will be observed during the Gemba Walk; they need to understand how it works, what is expected of them, and how they will benefit from the outcome. Here is an example: “We are walking the site to find obstacles in your daily work, so we can improve our processes to eliminate double handling and waiting times. We will be asking many questions, not to find fault or to blame anyone, but to understand why things happen. Please be open, honest, and specific about the things that are holding you back. This way, you are contributing the most to this exercise. See you tomorrow between 8:00 and 10:00 at your workstation”.
3. Select Participants
Depending on the purpose and scope, a Gemba Walk is either performed by an individual or by a team. A maintenance engineer walks the plant to check the integrity of grounding wires at each machine – no team required. An external ISO inspector walks together with the internal quality manager to check the compliance of current practices with established procedures – the two specialists are sufficient to perform the walk. To assess the maturity level of an entire site, the entire leadership team should participate on the Gemba Walk to align on observations. To assemble a Gemba Walk team, a good practice is firmly assigning key people (who must attend), while maintaining an open invitation to allow other people to join, learn, and contribute. Those people can provide a new perspective from fresh pairs of eyes, identifying issues and opportunities that their peers may have missed or gotten used to. For example, the CFO of a large appliance company looks at a large stack of process inventory: “Check those dates! These boxes are sitting here for 18 months already. That’s crazy! Why do we order more than we need?”
4. Walk the Value Stream
There are three guiding principles for an effective Gemba Walk: (a) “Go with the flow”, (b) “Form follows function”, (c) “Spot hot spots”. Practically, it means walking the value chain in flow direction, covering all critical processes, teams, shifts, locations that relate to the defined purpose of the Gemba Walk. For example, when performing a root cause analysis, all people and processes that might affect the problem should be in scope of the investigation. It is always recommended to involve people who know those areas best, such as supervisors and lead operators, asking them for their input and verify that all hot spots have been covered.
5. Focus on Process, Not on Behavior
The purpose is to observe, understand, and ultimately improve processes and systems. It is not an employee performance evaluation to find faults. The Gemba Walk should never feel punitive and it is not the right time to engage in employee task management or to enforce policy adherence, except for safety problems or gross violations. If a Gemba Walk is used punitively, employees will shut down and more likely resist the changes you want to introduce later on. For example, if someone is observed in making a mistake (wrongly applied knowledge) or human error (lack of knowledge), don’t blame or punish him or her. Be curious and go deeper to find the underlying causes. People do what they do (right or wrong) for a reason. Find that reason! During a recent plant visit, an operator adjusted each output-item to attain “perfect quality”. Such rework was well intended but unnecessary. When his manager recognized the overprocessing waste, he shouted at the operator for his apparent inefficiency. Not helpful. The problem was not the operator, but the lack of a quality standard. The better approach would have been to ask: How do you know when the item is good or bad; when to correct it and when not to?”
6. Document Observations
A typical Gemba Walk covers 10-20 processes x 10 observations each. That’s 100-200 insights that you will not remember, unless you document them. Using an old-school notepad or modern tablet will help you to document what you observed and thought. Note-taking apps, such as Apple Notes, One Note, Google Keep (among many others) provide dictation feature with voice-to-text conversion, and allow pasting images and short video-sequences into the same Gemba Walk document. Having all those information snippets in one place enables an efficient follow-up afterwards. Final point: be considerate of personal space and privacy rules; always explain the reason and ask for permission before taking any pictures or videos.
7. Ask to Understand, Don’t Assume
To truly understand and learn something new during the Gemba Walk, it is important to have an open mind and reset your beliefs, so you are not assuming anything and not judging anyone. Remember, you are not searching for the ‘right’ answer to confirm what you always thought, but for the truth that you are yet to discover. The SIPOC framework (Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer) provides an excellent structure for asking questions during the Gemba Walk:
- Supplier: Who is involved? Did you get what you need?
- Input: What materials and information are used?
- Process: What do you do, when, how? How do you know?
- Output: What result are you getting? Is it good or bad?
- Customer: Who needs the outcome? Is the customer satisfied?
8. Observe, Don’t Fix
The main purpose of the Gemba Walk is to learn, not to conclude or change anything yet. It is an opportunity for observation, not action. It represents the “Planning” phase of the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) improvement cycle and the “Measure” phase of the DMAIC (Define-Measure-Analyze-Improve-Control) improvement process. After discussing findings and aligning with stakeholders on what they mean, only then it is the right time to conclude and decide on next steps, which is the “Do” phase of PDCA and “Improve” phase of DMAIC.
9. Communicate Next Steps
After the Gemba Walk, share what has been learned and communicate the next steps. After all, a Gemba Walk costs time and money, an investment in the first quarter of the PDCA management cycle (“Plan”) to learn something new. Stopping here would mean wasting those valuable learnings. Only by closing the PDCA management cycle by doing something new or different (“Do”), validating its impact (“Check”), and embedding improvements (“Act”), we will create real value from the Gemba Walk. Closing this management loop is key to be credible and impactful, so people see that their voices count, and things actually change when they are getting involved and provide useful answers.
10. Return and Repeat
The Gemba Walk is an integral part of Lean and many other improvement programs for a good reason: Going to Gemba not only helps managers and teams to solve problems and make better decisions, but also to observe those changes in action and verify that they are delivering desired results. But how often should we go to Gemba, is it really necessary to do it daily? The short answer is yes, if you want to save time. Walking the floor, reviewing status of work, availability of people, conditions of machines, and performance of processes – it helps you recognizing abnormalities early, before they grow into larger problems, ultimately saving time in problem solving and performance management.
Is a Gemba Walk Efficient?
During a typical Gemba Walk, we are making a new observation every 3 seconds or 200 total during a 10-minute walk. An observation is not just watching our surroundings, it includes both noticing what happens and also processing that information in our minds: Seeing + Processing = Insight. Of those 200 observations, only a few, let’s say 10% or 20 are actionable insights, recorded during the 10-minute walk. If we would replace the Gemba Walk by emails, reports, and team meeting, we would probably spend an hour or longer to process the same information (6x longer than the Gemba Walk). And that’s just the hard benefit. Once we consider the additional soft benefit from connecting with people, building trust, providing feedback, and listening to their ideas, the Gemba Walk becomes not only efficient but also effective – invaluable to any team or business striving for excellence.
The Top-3 Benefits of Regular Gemba Walks
First, regular Gemba Walks ensure managers and specialists observe the reality of the work environment they have created. Second, Gemba Walks highlight how actual practices differ from established procedures, leading to a correction of the standard or a correction of the practice (Kaizen), or an innovation of the process (Kaikaku). Third, the more managers leave their offices and conference rooms to work with frontline staff, the less time they need to spend rectifying problems and understanding issues from a distance. Focus shifts from problem-solving after the fact, to rapid detection in line, to problem-prevention. The Gemba Walk creates tangible benefits for any team or business.
Gemba Walk in the Smart Factory
As advanced technology becomes mainstream and easily available, Gemba Walks will evolve by incorporating those tools. Here an example: Equipped with an Augmented Reality (AR) app on a tablet, the production manager in Indonesia walks the floor, guided by an expert in Australia, who is controlling a yellow arrow on his touchscreen to point out issues and opportunities. The entire walk is documented on an expert-narrated video, overlaid by supporting information such as actual cycle time, temperature reading, measured height of pallets stacked etc. Those videos are then used as an input to develop structured improvement plans.
The Gemba Spirit
“Any fool can know; the point is to understand” – Albert Einstein’s quote is summarizing the essence of the Gemba Walk: bi-directional learning to better understand how things work, how people tick, and why we are getting the results we are getting. Rather than pushing people to go faster, Gemba Walks help us recognizing and removing the barriers to value creation – resulting in faster and better processes, and more satisfied employees.
What is your experience with Gemba Walks? Do you find value and satisfaction doing them, or is it a more a routine task and necessary evil to keep things going? Feel free to contact us for assistance and exchanging best practices.