Sometimes, the best way to understand a process is to see it for yourself. While it’s important for managers and supervisors to utilize reports and data to determine if the company is hitting its goals, relying purely on data can cause a disconnect between how management assumes the company is operating and what is actually happening.
Over 70 years ago, Toyota Motor Corporation recognized the seriousness of this issue. The company instituted a practice where leaders would regularly go onto the factory floor to see the work as it was done, to talk directly with the people who perform the jobs and to better understand the process first-hand. This is the Gemba walk, and it’s an essential practice for any company that strives for continuous improvement.
Here’s what you need to know about the Gemba walk process and how you can institute this important practice in your organization.
What Is a Gemba Walk?
“Gemba” or “Genba” is a Japanese word that translates to “the real place.” The Gemba walk concept is also sometimes referred to as genchi genbutsu, which is the “actual place, actual thing.” The practice of the Gemba walk was developed by Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, whose practices would give rise to the modern concepts of lean manufacturing, just-in-time production and standardized work.
The Gemba walk itself is a practice where leadership takes the time to regularly walk the floor where the “real work” is being done so that they can review and experience processes first-hand, see how departments operate and determine if everything is operating according to standards.
What makes the Gemba walk unique is that it isn’t done at random, like spot checks, nor is it intended to be a surprise inspection. Every Gemba walk is done with the purpose of observing operations and engaging with employees. In fact, employees will generally know when the Gemba walk will be taking place and are encouraged to discuss processes with leadership and provide their own operational insights.
The Gemba walk goes hand-in-hand with the idea of the visual factory system — the use of signs, charts, labels and other visual communication tools to provide important information at the time and place it’s needed. As management takes their Gemba walk, they should be able to easily pick up information from these signals about the state of current operations. They can discuss any current issues with workers on the floor, ask follow-up questions and take notes for review later.
While the Gemba walk started in manufacturing and is still widely used there, the practice is applicable to process improvement in almost any industry.
What Is the Purpose of a Gemba Walk?
Above all, the Gemba walk is meant to break down the barriers between upper management and the workers on the floor. While it is fundamentally a practice for identifying greater efficiencies, it is also helpful for building a sense of purpose, teamwork and commitment to success among all employees.
The Gemba walk allows managers and leaders to:
- Break away from their daily routine for a fresh perspective on operations
- Observe the actual work process instead of relying on second-hand or theoretical knowledge
- Engage with employees and build relationships based on mutual trust and respect
- Build on their own knowledge about the work process across all areas of the company
- Identify and explore opportunities for continuous improvement
- Hear ideas and gather feedback from workers on the ground
- Pilot changes to process and measure improvements over time
The Gemba walk also serves an important purpose for employees, as it:
- Allows them the opportunity to meet and connect with the leadership team
- Sets a standard for what the optimal operation process should look like
- Brings in an outside eye to identify inefficiencies, hazards or other issues that may be regularly overlooked
- Provides a safe space to offer open and honest feedback
Benefits of Adopting Regular Gemba Walks
Making Gemba walks a regular practice is key for ensuring that work processes are as efficient as possible.
Leadership is more knowledgeable about the work process. There’s a flow and rhythm to the work when it’s operating to standard. A manager who does regular Gemba walks will be able to recognize the cadence of standardized work to know if the work and process are as they should be. This real-time connection makes it easier for managers to recognize developing issues and to take action quickly, which can help to prevent downtime. Being more in-sync with operations as they happen allows leadership to be better prepared to make decisions, instead of having to be brought up to speed after hearing about something gone wrong later on.
It provides leadership with a better understanding of how departments work together. Managers and project team members shouldn’t just have an understanding of top-down interactions — the company vertical — but should also understand the horizontal nature of the organization, such as how a product moves through development and production. The perspective of both the vertical and horizontal nature of an organization can lend new insights into what’s not working well, spot areas where communication breaks down or uncover areas where there are safety concerns. These insights allow leaders to more efficiently implement changes that can improve operations, which will make products and services better for customers.
Employees have a space to feel engaged and empowered. Gemba walks are also an opportunity for leadership to engage with employees and frontline managers via the Socratic method. Also called the Socratic Dialogue, this process is a cooperative activity of seeking answers to issues. Instead of giving the workers the solution or telling them what they should do, the manager asks leading questions so that workers can process the issue and discover the answers on their own. This helps to build critical thinking skills and makes it more likely that employees will be able to arrive at their own solutions when other issues or disruptions arise.
Leadership and frontline workers build better relationships. When managers and executives go on a Gemba walk, they are there to learn from the workers. Treating workers with respect and acknowledging their experience and expertise helps to build trust and respect. Building better relationships with those who actually do the work leads to increased employee engagement and helps to create value. It also opens channels for quickly communicating goals and objectives, as well as raising concerns or identifying problems.
What Isn’t a Gemba Walk?
The Gemba walk is entirely about the process itself, not the people doing the work. A Gemba walk isn’t a performance review or an opportunity to make on-the-spot fixes. It’s driven by a specific purpose of understanding the work process, not a “management by walking around” (MBWA) strategy.
Here are some things to avoid when performing a Gemba walk:
- With the exception of clear safety violations or gross negligence, don’t take the time to enforce policy adherence. Perhaps some aspect of the policy needs to change and the walk will provide the opportunity to learn why.
- Don’t bring up things that happen to come to mind or propose on-spot-solutions; the walk is simply the time to observe and gather data.
- Don’t use the Gemba walk as an opportunity to micromanage or call out things that you don’t like. Questions should be about clarifying operations or determining how a process could be improved, not why a machine is down or an area unorganized.
- Don’t call out employees on the floor for faults or inefficiencies. You do not want to create the fear that future Gemba walks will be opportunities for punitive actions. If the frontline workers are making themselves scarce during a Gemba walk, then you’re taking the wrong approach.
- Don’t shut down or disregard feedback and input. You’re on the walk to gather information, straight from the source, free from filters. Expressing displeasure or reacting harshly to critiques can make others afraid to provide critical insights, out of fear of getting in trouble.
The Gemba Walk Process
“Go see, ask why, show respect.” — Toyota executive Fujio Cho
The Gemba walk process can be boiled down to three important elements:
- Go and see the process
- Ask why things are the way they are
- Respect everyone and the work they do
As long as you keep those elements front-of-mind, then you can stay true to the Gemba walk’s purpose. For a more specific breakdown of how to execute a Gemba walk, consider the following steps:
- Pick a theme for the Gemba walk and have a plan. Every Gemba walk is purposeful, so knowing exactly which processes you’ll be observing and sticking exclusively to that plan will help you focus all your attention and make the walk more effective. One specific walk could be about examining productivity, another could be looking at waste, a third concentrating on safety, etc. Prepare relevant questions to ask and create a structured plan for how you’ll walk through the space.
- Prepare your team. Your workers on the floor will be active participants during the walk; since you’ll need their buy-in, they need to be prepared to participate. It helps if they have a clear understanding that the Gemba walk is meant to be a regular process for continuous improvement, not a performance review. Let team members know ahead of time how they will be observed and when the walk will happen.
- Be where the value stream is. When mapping out the walk, you want to hit all of the areas most relevant to your value chain. Discuss which areas should be prioritized with your floor managers, as this will allow you to better identify the areas with the highest potential for waste or inefficiencies.
- Focus on process, not people. During the walk, avoid the urge to call out specific individuals or dig into specific roles and responsibilities. A Gemba walk is not the right time to evaluate your team’s performance. If you do happen to observe a problem with an employee that needs to be addressed, follow up at a later time (with the common-sense exception being for safety violations).
- Record and document your observations. You’ll want to write down everything that grabs your attention, or have someone assisting you to take copious notes. You can even record processes with a smartphone or other mobile device to review later.
- Take time to ask questions. Go beyond surface observations to understand the root cause of an issue or process. Ask relevant questions — who, where, when, why or how? For example: Who has to give approval to finish a process? What needs to happen to move to the next step? Where are bottlenecks most likely to arise? etc. One helpful technique to dig deeper is The Five Whys approach.
- Don’t suggest changes during the walk. The Gemba walk is for information gathering, so leave the analysis for later. It’s important to ask workers for their insights and perspectives on what could be improved or what’s causing frustration, but fight the urge to make your suggestions during the walk.
- Make the Gemba walk in teams. It’s important to have an extra pair of eyes during the walk to make observations. Also, the more departmentally diverse the team, the better. They may see things you may have overlooked, or ask questions that you may not have thought of. Performing the walk with others also highlights that this is a team process, one that requires input from across the entire company.
- Have a post-Gemba walk follow-up with employees. Don’t leave your workers in the dark after a Gemba walk. Sit down with the leadership team and carefully analyze the situation, then invite some of the workers you’ve observed to answer follow-up questions or to provide additional insights. You’ll want as many points of view as possible to make the best decisions regarding improvement. Then, share with all your teams what you have learned or seen, what changes will be made and what improvements they’ll bring. Be sure to recognize the contribution of different teams to making the Gemba walk a success.
- Repeat the Gemba walk regularly. Gemba walks are not one-time things. You’ll need to perform the walk again after changes have been implemented to see if you’ve achieved the expected improvements. Be sure to mix up the schedule for future walks, as it’s important to see how processes differ at various times of the day or week or under different teams.
Tips for a Successful Gemba Walk
To ensure that your Gemba walk is purposeful and stays on-task, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Are you looking at the production of a particular product?
Is the idea to determine which steps in a process are wasteful or inefficient?
Do you want to see how different teams work together or communicate on the floor?
Once you know the stops, map out a clear structure to the walk and set a defined schedule. Make sure that all parties have access to the plan so they know where the walk will be happening and at what times.
Discuss the purpose of the walk ahead of time. Your workers must understand and believe that the Gemba walk comes from a place of mutual respect and interest in making things faster, safer, easier and better for everyone. Talking about the walk before it happens will help everyone feel more comfortable and open to the interaction. Be clear with employees that you aren’t looking for “right” answers or are there to judge them — you’re there to observe and ask for honest and complete answers.
Secure employee buy-in. Getting as much input as possible during a Gemba walk will increase its effectiveness. Remember during the walk to ask leading questions and invite employees to provide feedback on processes. When planning future walks, ask for suggestions about processes, shifts or work areas that might benefit from a Gemba walk. If improvements to the process are to be made through Job Instruction training, make sure your employers understand the reasons for the changes and what future expectations will be.
Put aside the time you’ll need for the Gemba walk. This process is important. If you’re worried about a Gemba walk taking time out of your schedule, understand that many of the regular management activities that take up so much time — such as sending and receiving emails or sitting in meetings — can be reduced or eliminated by holding regular Gemba walks. There’s no one rule for determining the time needed for a Gemba walk, as each is situational depending on the size of the organization, the process and the team. It does help to have a defined purpose, often associated with a specific concern related to a KPI, for estimating how long a walk will take.
Have a list of standard questions to ask at every point of the walk. Consider the following list of general questions:
|Questions to ask about the process
||Questions to ask workers about their experience with the process
Have someone with experience on the walk. If the leadership team is not experienced in Gemba walks, it is important to bring an experienced coach or consultant along to keep the team on task. Partnering with a consultant who will provide an assessment of your workers and your workplace can be a helpful way to start your first Gemba walk. After the walk, the consultant can assent in implementing Improvement Kata in order to:
- Understand the challenge or direction for improvement
- Understand the current condition of processes
- Establish the next target condition
- Experiment to work toward that target condition (PDCA)
Pay attention to the visual cues. In a lean setting, there will be visual cues posted around the factory that highlight specific targets, current actuals and any existing issues. During a walk through these stations, managers should pay attention to these visual boards, to inform their understanding of how a standardized process should work. Familiarize yourself with them for future walks.
Digitize the process with a Gemba walk mobile application. Consider creating or licensing a digital application to streamline the process. A Gemba app can easily collect notes, photos, answers to questions, location data and more during a walk. Cloud connectivity provides the leadership team instant access to updated statistics and insights in real time while on the floor, and makes examining the data and sharing results that much easier.
Put aside any assumptions about why the work is done the way that it is. You have to go into each Gemba walk with an open mind. Don’t assume that everything is being done according to the standard, or that the standard process is above reproach. Trust that processes are as they should be, but verify that they are meeting the following four primary objectives:
- Safety — that things are always done in the safest way possible
- Quality — that you are constantly producing the quality that customers are expecting
- Cost — that processes are being done at the best / lowest cost possible
- Delivery — that everything is being executed in a way that will allow you to exceed customer expectations
Gemba Walk FAQs
How long should a Gemba walk take?
The length of a Gemba walk will vary depending on the size of the operation. Gemba walks may take less than half an hour or they may take up to several hours. The duration depends a lot on the goals for the walk and the processes being observed. It will also depend on the level of responsibility the manager has and how much of the process they need to understand.
How often do you need to do a Gemba walk?
The occurrence of Gemba walks will vary depending on the processes and the leadership team that’s doing the walk. Lower level management, such as supervisors, should do daily Gemba walks to review multiple processes. Department heads may perform weekly Gemba walks, each with a specific purpose. Presidents or other high level executives could execute a Gemba walk once a month across different departments.
What’s the difference between a Gemba walk and the MBWA strategy?
The “manage by walking around” strategy is more about being present in a space in a manner that is unstructured and random, or in a way that’s likely to catch employees off-guard. Gemba walks are decidedly not random; they are structured and purposeful. Employees should always know ahead of time when a Gemba walk is happening and what its purpose is.
Where can I read more about the Gemba walk?
If you would like more in-depth information, we recommended reading “Gemba Kaizen: A Common Sense, Low-Cost Approach to Management,” written by Masaaki Imai, one of the main thought leaders behind the Gemba walk.