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Take Great Strides with Gemba Walks

  • Peter J. Sherman
  2018

Editor’s note: The editors of APICS magazine are pleased to welcome Peter J. Sherman, CSCP, managing partner of Riverwood Associates, as the author of “Operational Excellence.” This new department will focus on philosophies of workplace problem-solving, developing strong teams and leaders, maintaining a customer focus, and facilitating continuous improvement.

Gemba is a Japanese word meaning the place where value is created. In construction, it would be the job site. In the insurance industry, the gemba is the claims processing center. At a logistics company, the warehouse or fulfillment center is the gemba. In manufacturing, it’s the shop floor.

Gemba walks involve getting out of one's chair to watch a process, talking with operators and asking open-ended questions in order to better comprehend the nature of the value being created. The APICS Dictionary further explains this as an approach “in which managers observe the actual work being carried out in order to understand it better, coach, guide and follow up on corrective actions.”

Gemba walks are a guiding principle of the Toyota Production System and lie at the heart of lean. They also represent an invaluable opportunity to improve performance, reduce waste and eliminate safety hazards, as well as a huge learning and development opportunity for both the walkers and the people being viewed. A gemba walk enables a business to develop its employees by helping them understand end-to-end processes, identify waste and solve problems. Meanwhile, leaders use what they discover to build relationships with the front line, establish mutual trust, and help people expand upon current skills and capabilities. This is one of the most effective means to scale a business.

Following is a framework for conducting a gemba walk, based on a three-step, continuous cycle: pre-gemba walk, gemba walk and post-gemba walk.

Step 1. Pre-gemba walk. Before conducting the walk, leaders must clearly define its goals. These may comprise

  • identifying opportunities to improve performance
  • creating a safe work environment
  • understanding barriers that affect customer satisfaction
  • building the team’s problem-solving skills.

Other key considerations in this phase include the following:

  • What will be the scope of the walk? Where will it start and end? To decide this, a floor plan of the operation should be reviewed to visualize the flow. For a company’s first gemba walk, focus on a particular area of the business to avoid scope creep. However, always keep the end-to-end process in mind to see how changes in one place may influence others.
  • Which particular step in the value stream will be reviewed?
  • Will the walk be conducted during the day shift, night shift or both?
  • Who will go on the walk? Here, it is wise to involve a core team of department leaders from across the value stream. Also consider inviting staff from support functions such as quality; process improvement; environmental, health and safety; human resources; purchasing; maintenance; customer support; and billing.

Prior to the walk, meet with the team to review its purpose, expectations and appropriate behaviors. These include showing respect to the front line, making sure everyone introduces themselves, not interfering with work, listening more than talking, avoiding comments that blame a person or department for a problem, not making on-the-spot judgments — whether they be positive or negative — and always thanking employees for their time.

Make sure the walkers familiarize themselves with typical problems that exist in business, such as Shingo’s seven deadly wastes of overproduction, waiting, transportation, stocks, motion, defects and processing.

Finally, do not allow anyone to do any extra preparations for the walk, such as cleaning up a work area, updating the key performance metrics board or suddenly starting a process-improvement project. This defeats the purpose entirely.

Step 2. Gemba walk. Gaining firsthand understanding of the nature of the work being done requires careful observation, thoughtful and respectful questions, and active listening. Always keep in mind that a key objective is letting employees recognize and solve problems themselves through investigation, coaching and training.

When walkers introduce themselves, they also should explain what they hope to achieve and confirm that the timing is appropriate. Say something like: “I’m here because I hope to better understand your department and what you do every day. Do you have time for a few questions?”

It is easy to become overwhelmed and distracted by the activities on the shop floor. To stay focused, organize observations in the following categories:

  • Order, cleanliness and safety: This involves whether parts and files are easy to find, inventory is countable, and product moves safely and efficiently. Operators and visitors should be wearing appropriate protective equipment, and the area should be well-lit, with good air quality and a low noise level. See if the floor has designated walking routes, and confirm that no one is running around frantically and forklifts aren’t speeding. Include areas not on the shop floor, as well: Check to see if the parking lot is free of litter, the front office is clean and welcoming, and visitors are required to sign in.
  • Flow of materials, people and information: Piles of inventory stacking up is a red flag here, as excess work in process takes up space, must be counted, can get lost or damaged, and is likely to become obsolete. In well-organized plants and warehouses, materials, tools and supplies are moved only once. Likewise, establish if workers are waiting or hunting for parts. This is a symptom of suboptimal flow.
  • Visual management systems: Confirm if inventory bins, shelves and containers, and signs above departments and work stations are clearly marked. Look for color-coded, visual indicators or similar metrics boards that display productivity, quality and safety levels. Most critical here is determining if these systems are current.
  • Equipment: Tools that are worn or frequently break down are evidence of a short-term, corner-cutting attitude; tools that are clean and well-maintained reflect a philosophy of investing in the future. Additionally, look at maintenance logs on machinery to verify preventive maintenance procedures.
  • Quality culture: Plant goals and improved performance must be clear. Employees should take pride in their work, maintain a positive attitude, dress appropriately and always think in terms of the customer. Teamwork and continuous learning are key attributes.

This phase of the gemba walk also offers opportunity to ask open-ended “what, why and how” questions. (See below.) These will help walkers gain the fundamental understanding that they seek.

Questions to Ask During a Gemba Walk

Question Rationale
What is the primary purpose of this activity? Baseline understanding of the work
What are the steps in the process? More detailed level of understanding of the work
How do you know you are doing an effective job? Provides context in terms of performance
How do you measure a successful workday? Defines success in terms of metrics and personal job satisfaction
What are the target and actual current performance metrics? Shows an understanding of the future direction and the current state
Who are the customers for the work you do? Where does it go next? Indicates an awareness of systems thinking
What types of defects, problems or interruptions typically arise during your shift? Indicates an openness to discuss problems
Why do disruptions occur? Awareness of the root cause and surrounding impacts
Why do backtracking, rework or loops occur? Reflection on waste in the workplace
Why has an issue not been addressed? Indicates formal process-improvement and level of importance
How do you address a problem? Evidence of ownership, urgency and improvement attempts
How do you test improvements? Assesses understanding of experiments or pilots
How often do you engage with other resources to solve problems? Indicates level of collaboration
How do you make an improvement suggestion? Awareness of formal process-improvement tools


Step 3. Post-gemba walk.
When the walk is complete and improvement opportunities have been identified, the real work begins. Help team members build problem-solving skills and become systems thinkers. Challenge them to prioritize issues, and offer to review the business case once they have done so. Coach people on how to build a project plan or break phases into smaller steps. Help them secure necessary resources and remove roadblocks.

Ask tough questions, such as, “How do you know this is the root cause?” and “What is the return on investment?” Look for evidence that the team collected solid data with tools such as fishbone diagrams or the five whys. Encourage them to explore both short- and long-term fixes, and make sure they have considered if any upstream or downstream groups could be affected by the changes they want to implement. 

It’s also essential to hold a debrief meeting with team members to evaluate the walk’s effectiveness. Ask them what worked and what could be improved; then, prioritize these items on an enterprise level. Review and document outstanding issues and action items. Finally, share the minutes with all stakeholders to ensure transparency.

Keeping the pace

Mastering gemba walks takes lots of practice. The first one may be an exercise in what to do and what not to do. Try not to become frustrated with the pace of change. Scheduling follow-up walks on a regular cadence will help streamline the process, ensure accountability and enhance results.

 

Peter J. Sherman, CSCP, is managing partner at Riverwood Associates, a process improvement training and consulting firm based in Atlanta. He is a Certified Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and previously served as lead instructor of Emory University's Six Sigma Certificate program. Sherman may be contacted at peter@riverwoodassociates.com.

 

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