Lean practices are built on a foundation of continuous improvement. But knowing where to focus improvement efforts can sometimes be tricky. This is especially true if the leaders making decisions are disconnected from the people on the front lines. This is where Gemba Walks can be effective.

What is Gemba?

Gemba comes from the Japanese word “Genba,” meaning “the actual place.” A Gemba walk is going to the place where the work is happening – where the company value is created. This includes physically observing work, interacting with people on the front lines, and learning more about their processes and procedures. Gemba walks help companies identify potential waste, connect leaders with front-line workers, and develop strategies for increasing productivity.

Why is Gemba Useful?

When done correctly, Gemba walks have two significant benefits:

  1. They create a culture of mutual respect. Going to the front lines to learn and understand first encourages an open dialogue between front-line workers and decision-makers. Decision-makers are often unaware of the processes and procedures that front-line workers follow, or why these processes matter. Encouraging open dialogue helps decision-makers better understand the needs of the folks on the floor and helps them brainstorm ideas for improvement.
  2. They help Identify waste early. Gemba walks should take place regularly. Some companies will do walks as often as every day, while others will do weekly or bi-weekly walks. Whatever the schedule, the idea is to connect with the production folks to identify problems and create solutions before they create a bottleneck in the system.

It’s important to note that Gemba walks do have the disadvantage of feeling monotonous, especially in smaller companies where there may not be a new problem to solve every time. This often leads to skipped steps to “get through” the walk faster. These kinds of missteps can have significant consequences for companies hoping to stay ahead of potential problems.

Hallmarks of an Effective Gemba Walk

While there are many variations to the way a company implements Gemba walks, all effective Gemba walks have these eight hallmarks:

  1. The topic. Trying to assess multiple aspects of a production line or process simultaneously can result in missing something important. A thorough Gemba walk focuses on one facet at a time, such as productivity or safety.
  2. A strong team. Multiple people from a variety of departments should conduct Gemba walks together. As a result, you will be able to generate more effective solutions later. Leaders should brief the team on the topic focus and enter the walk with a continuous improvement mindset.
  3. Process-oriented. Gemba walks focus on the process and the process alone. They are never meant to be people-oriented as it pertains to blame.
  4. Record process. Participants should record all observations for analysis after the walk. Participants should wait to make suggestions until the team has had a chance to discuss their observations as a group.
  5. Gemba walks are a time to ask questions and involve people on the front lines in the discussion. The purpose is to learn from these folks to improve productivity and efficiency.
  6. Gemba walks should take place regularly. That said, the time of the walk should vary to check in on production at various times throughout the day.
  7. Before passing judgments, Gemba teams should analyze and discuss the issues they noted. This is also an opportunity to follow up with the folks on the front lines to gather more information and buy-in on improvement plans.
  8. Teams assigned to Gemba walks have a lot of responsibility. Any number of folks may be relying on their analysis for improvement. These teams need to remain transparent about their thoughts and progress to bolster trust and respect throughout the company.

Outcomes of a Strong Gemba Walk

In conclusion, Gemba walks offer a ton of benefits. The effectiveness of the Gemba walk will largely determine the company’s output and value. Having a solid process in place will ensure lasting relationships, proactive problem-solving, and enhanced employee engagement.