You can’t make the right decisions from the meeting room. You have to go, watch, and learn. This is the beginning of what is called a Gemba Walk.
“Don’t look with your eyes, look with your feet” – Taiichi Ohno
When Steve Blank was developing some of the core concepts of design thinking, he continually said get out of the building and go and learn from real customers. And the same goes for Lean.
What is a Gemba Walk?
In Lean, we talk about “going to the Gemba” or Gemba Walks. The Gemba means the “place where value is created”. The idea is simple; if you want to improve your business, you need to learn more about your processes, your people, your customers, you need to go and see for yourself.
Managers and business leaders today are often so separated from the actual work by corporate structures. They have not seen the process. They have not spoken to any customers. And they don’t even talk to the people who do the work daily.
When you make decisions at arm’s length – there is no real understanding of what is happening. Often this causes customers and employees more pain. If you want to make a difference, go and see for yourself and learn what your employees need you to do to make customers happier.
The Gemba is also the place you go just not to learn but also to lead others. It is where you train your people, invest in colleagues learnings and spend time engaging directly with your customers.
To supplement the idea of Gemba, Toyota adds the related “genchi gembustsu” to emphasise the literal meaning of the “real thing” as well as the real place. Chairman Fujio Cho says that lean leaders do three things” “Go see, ask why, show respect”.
A call to action. Everyone, from CEO downwards, has the responsibility to spend time on the shop floor watching how to produce the product or service. You need to learn how customers are feeling and how they interact with what you do.
Interested: Buy “Gemba Walks by Jim Womack”
In 2019, we had an opportunity to work with a Global Feight and Distribution centre in South Africa, DeliveryCo, and witnessed an excellent daily Gemba Walk routine that had been bought into the company 2 years previously. Every day, following the morning stand-up of the senior managers, one of the team would take one of the key themes and begin a well organised Gemba Walk of the distribution centre.
Following the same daily flow, the senior leader would engage with the team’s leaders and team members, review operational performance and dashboards, take the 5S lens and focus on a critical customer-focused theme. During the 20 to 60 mins + Gemba walk, the team members and leader would discuss current performance challenges, review current improvement activities and look for opportunities to remove blockers across the operations.
There was a key structure but that structure allowed flexibility to explore issues and provide the daily forum for operational issues to be raised by the team leading to senior management engagement to help remove the issues where possible.
Before you go on any Gemba Walk, you must identify what is the purpose of the Gemba Walk and what is the theme. You might be looking for ways to improve productivity, reduce costs, reduce errors, improve flow or help facilitate improvement ideas. But you need to be clear on the purpose otherwise you will get lost and tied up in whatever is happening on the floor without clear improvements and outcomes.
If you do not know the high-level process that you are about to observe, the chances are that you will not be able to fully grasp the opportunities that exist. So before you begin any Gemba Walk, make sure you understand what you are about to observe so that you can provide the necessary support, guidance and insights.
The Gemba Walk is about mutual respect and a joint interest in making processes faster, safer, easier and just plain better, so it’s not about catching people out. Setting a time makes sure that the team can be made aware and that team leaders can be available to engage in their part of the Gemba Walk.
The Gemba means the place where “value is created” so do not get team members up to the office to debrief you. You must go to where the work is being done and where the value is created. In the famous lean phrase by Ohno, “every leader must wash their hands at least 3 times a day”.
During the Gemba Walk, the goal is always to be focused on the process and what stops the process from achieving its goals of maximising customer value. So as you observe the process, consider the inputs into the process and are they fit for purpose. And how does the process, the inputs and the teams interact.
Before jumping to solutions or opportunities, make sure you spend time observing and carefully understand how the current start is performing. Is the process performing as expected or is there delays, rework, confusion, movement etc?
Now that you have understood the current status, what is the best ideal state and where are the gaps. The ideal state does not have to be a perfect future state but an achievable ideal state (given a number of restrictions). What you want to identify here is what is the gap that can potentially then be closed.
With a clear gap between the current and the ideal, what activities could be done by the team, managers, team leaders to help close this gap. Engage with the team, discuss options and build a document action plan for driving improvements.