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From the Front Lines: What You Can Learn from a Gemba Walk

Allan Ung

From the Front Lines: What You Can Learn from a Gemba Walk

“Genchi Genbutsu [go and see the actual situation] means

imagining what you are observing is your own job,

rather than somebody else’s problem,

and making efforts to improve it.”


Akio Toyoda



What is Gemba Walk?


The Gemba Walk is a powerful Lean management tool that has its origins in Toyota's manufacturing processes. Gemba refers to the actual place where value is created, and a Gemba Walk involves leaders visiting the front lines to gain first-hand knowledge of how products are built, services are provided, and current challenges and opportunities for improvement. The goal is to examine the current state of a particular process by observing it in action at the place where it occurs.



Why Gemba Walk?


The main purpose of a Gemba Walk is to obtain first-hand knowledge of how work is actually done and to see the gap between how processes look on paper and how they are executed in real life. This provides a fresh set of eyes that can identify opportunities for improvement that may have been missed by management. Gemba walk focuses on observing and improving processes and identifying areas for improvement.


Gemba Walks also help build relationships and trust between leadership and staff, showing management's commitment to Lean initiatives and driving accountability within the organization. By observing the process in action, managers can ask in-depth questions about the process being observed and identify varied opportunities for improvement.



What Gemba Walk Is Not


Gemba Walk is often misunderstood as Management by Walking Around (MBWA), which is more focused on casual conversations and building relationships. It is not an audit, policing, or checking on employees. Gemba Walk is not the time for on-the-spot changes or solving problems but a complement to data analysis and other quantitative methods. It can be applied to any work setting, not just manufacturing or production environments. Finally, it is not a one-time or occasional activity but a continuous, ongoing process.



Objective of Gemba Walk


The objective of a Gemba Walk is to grasp the situation by involving everyone touching the process to understand purpose, process, and people. Once the situation is understood, improvement is possible and more likely to succeed.



The Four Steps of Gemba Walk


The Gemba Walk involves leaders and managers spending time on the front lines of their organization, where value is created. This practice helps leaders understand how their processes work and where they can make improvements to enhance efficiency, quality, and safety. The Gemba Walk follows a structured process consisting of four key steps, which are critical to its success.


Four Steps of Gemba Walk

Four Steps of Gemba Walk




Step 1: Know your Purpose


The first step in the Gemba Walk process is to know your purpose. It refers to having a clear understanding of the specific objectives you want to achieve through the gemba walk. This includes identifying the problems you want to address, the processes you want to observe, and the improvements you want to make. Having a well-defined purpose helps you stay focused and maximize the value you can derive from the gemba walk.



Step 2: Know your Gemba


The second step is to know your gemba, or the location where value is created. It refers to having a thorough knowledge of the work area or process that you will be observing during the gemba walk. This could be a manufacturing floor, an office, a hospital ward, or any other place where work is being done. This includes understanding the workflow, the people involved, the equipment and tools used, and any challenges or issues that may affect the process. Knowing your gemba allows you to ask relevant questions, identify improvement opportunities, and gain a deeper understanding of the process.



Step 3: Observe the Framework


The third step is to observe the framework, which involves reviewing the frameworks and observation tips for Gemba Walk. Observing the framework refers to taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture of the processes and systems in place. This involves looking at the overall structure of the work environment, including how tasks and information flow, how resources are allocated, and how decisions are made. Examples of frameworks include:


2. Eight Types of Lean Waste (which focuses only on Muda)

3. 5Ms + 1E (Man, Method, Machine, Material, Measurement and Environment)

4. The 3Ps: Purpose, Process and People

5. The "House of Gemba" (based on Masaaki Imai)


By observing the framework, one can identify potential inefficiencies or opportunities for improvement in the overall process, rather than just focusing on individual tasks or steps. This can lead to more effective and impactful improvements in the long run. Leaders should be prepared to ask questions, take notes, and make observations about the processes they are observing. They should also be mindful of the 3MUs that are commonly found in processes and value streams.



Step 4: Validate


The final step in the Gemba Walk process is to validate. This step involves sharing what you have learned with others, such as your team or other leaders in the organization. Validation ensures that the observations made during the Gemba Walk are accurate and useful. It also helps to identify opportunities for improvement and encourages a culture of continuous improvement within the organization.


By following these steps, leaders can gain a deep understanding of their processes and value streams, identify opportunities for improvement, and drive a culture of continuous improvement in their organization.



Implementing the Gemba Walk


To implement a successful Gemba Walk, leaders must take a walk through the core activities of the entire organization, including product and process development, order fulfillment, supplier and customer management, and the general management system. During the walk, they should select a theme or focus on an area with KPI gaps, questioning supervisors and attentively listening to their responses. Leaders should also share what they learn as they walk and write a short memo to be posted for all to see.


Showing respect to people and processes on the shop floor is critical during Gemba Walks. Leaders should demonstrate this respect by asking open-ended questions that uncover valuable insights and ideas. They should also prioritize listening more than talking, creating a safe environment for people to talk, and using the 5 Why's approach for problem-solving without placing blame on individuals.


To help employees "see it" and gain confidence, leaders should coach and mentor them while also trusting them to take ownership of the problems they encounter. Following these principles, leaders can conduct effective Gemba Walks that promote respect and continuous improvement throughout the organization.



Tips for Observing


To make the most of a Gemba Walk, it is important to gain an understanding of the process, test positions and locations for observing, record observations and questions, and not assume, but ask. Do not be in a rush - grow roots.




Keys to Successful Gemba Walks


The focus of a Gemba Walk should be on identifying problems in the processes, rather than blaming the people performing the process. If a leader lacks humility, it can be challenging to conduct a Gemba Walk. It is crucial to keep an open mind and ask lots of open-ended questions. The purpose of the walk is to learn from the experts on the front lines, not to judge or offer unsolicited advice.


To gain a comprehensive understanding, conduct the Gemba Walk at various times and days. Do not assume anything about what people are doing or why they are doing it. Walk with a cross-functional team, with each member bringing a unique perspective to the Gemba Walk, which may lead to different opportunities for improvement or unique ideas for improvement. Avoid trying to teach people too many things in one setting, and do not attempt to change the world in a single Gemba Walk.


Finally, it is essential to follow up and ensure that progress is being made, and the kaizen efforts are positively impacting the organization. By following these steps, you can implement a successful Gemba Walk and continuously improve your organization.



Getting Started


To get started with Gemba Walk, the first step is to find a process or value stream within your organization that you want to review. It could be anything from a manufacturing line to a customer service process. Once you have identified the process, review the frameworks and observation tips to prepare for your Gemba Walk. Practice seeing the three MUs around you to help you identify areas for improvement. During the Gemba Walk, observe the process or value stream and share what you have learned with the team. After identifying the areas for improvement, choose something to kaizen and make changes to improve the process. Finally, follow up to see that progress is being made and continue to make improvements as necessary.



Conclusion


Gemba Walk is an effective tool for Lean management that enables leaders to observe processes and identify opportunities for improvement. By focusing on the process, observing and learning, mixing it up, testing assumptions, and walking with a cross-functional team, leaders can grasp the situation and connect team goals with the organization's strategy. A successful Gemba Walk requires a continuous, ongoing process that builds relationships and trust between leadership and staff, shows management's commitment to Lean initiatives, and drives accountability within the organization.




Allan Ung

Article by Allan Ung, Principal Consultant at Operational Excellence Consulting, a distinguished management consultancy based in Singapore. Our firm specializes in maximizing customer value and minimizing waste through the strategic adoption of Design Thinking and Lean management practices. For further details, please visit www.oeconsulting.com.sg 



 

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