They say what gets measured gets managed, but what about the things you can’t measure—the ones you need to see with your own eyes to understand?
Like the workstation that could be set up for faster throughput. Or the critical calibration tool that happens to be chronically broken. Or the process that has too many steps, creating a bottleneck. In these and other situations, identifying the right solution often means going to see the source of problems firsthand.
The Japanese word for this source of knowledge is Gemba, which translates to “the real place.” An essential part of the Lean practitioner’s toolkit, Gemba walks are an efficient way to see what is and isn’t working, also giving you valuable opportunities to coach employees in person.
Elements of a Gemba Walk
Because they take you directly to the action, Gemba walks are a particularly powerful part of your continuous improvement activities, including audit management and Kaizen events.
Leading a Gemba walk takes quality out of its box and makes it the responsibility of everyone in the organization. You see up close whether employees understand and follow standard work processes, and how they approach problem-solving. Gemba walks require three critical elements:
- Go see: You have to get to the Gemba—typically the shop floor—to see if the process design supports its intended purpose. You also need to be there to see if your people are engaged in your objectives and have the resources needed to meet them.
- Ask why: A good leader seeks first to understand instead of being understood. Take time to explore the root causes of process failure, using tools like the 5 Whys rather than prescribing solutions. Focus on defining the problem, uncovering waste and leveraging Kaizen techniques to analyze patterns, forms, tools and routines.
- Show respect: A Gemba walk isn’t about pointing fingers and assigning blame. You need to respect people on the plant floor to build the trust that leads them to share valuable information. Work on coaching employees through the problem-solving process, challenging people to develop their own solutions.
With more than 4 in 5 manufacturing leaders having trouble talking with their employees, Gemba walks provide an ideal opportunity to hone your communication skills.
Your Gemba Walk Theme and Goals
The specifics of your Gemba walk checklist will depend on your specific objectives and goals. In some cases you might do an unstructured Gemba walk, particularly if your organization is into strategies like Management By Walking Around.
Other situations might call for a more focused approach, such as if your Gemba walk relates to a particular Lean initiative or Kaizen event. Potential themes might include:
- Customer Service
- Innovation and learning
No matter the theme, it’s important to clearly define the goal of the Gemba walk so you can better gauge your progress and barriers to achieving the goal.
Gemba Walk Checklist Questions
Once you’ve determined the theme of your Gemba walk, you’ll want to prepare a list of questions to ask employees as you walk around. Places to find ideas for questions include the 7 wastes of Lean, 5S of Kaizen or the 4M’s of production.
We’ve included a few sample questions below, grouped into areas like analyzing processes, problem-solving, resources and continuous improvement.
- What is the standard or process to which you are working?
- Do you think the standard or process is clear?
- What are we doing to meet the standard or process?
- What is the goal we’re trying to achieve with this process?
- What can we do to improve the process?
- What can we do to flag nonconformances immediately so we can implement corrective action?
- What kind of problems are you running into here?
- Why is this a challenge?
- What have you done to determine the root cause?
- What is the next step?
Tools and resources:
- Are our data and charts up-to-date?
- Do you have everything you need for this process?
- What would help break down barriers to solving problems?
- What is today’s priority? Why?
- What do you intend to improve today?
- What other questions should I be asking?
Layered Process Audits and Gemba Walks
Gemba walks work hand-in-hand with your layered process audit (LPA) program. LPAs are a type of high-frequency audit requiring participation from all management layers. If you already have an LPA program, you can use Gemba walks to ensure you’re holding the gains you’ve made, as well as analyze more in-depth how to improve your processes.
And if you’re just starting on your LPA journey, Gemba walks can provide an excellent starting point. Not only does management develop the habit of walking around and engaging with employees, operators also get used to sharing information and insights. Added together, these interactions foster an environment of openness and mutual respect, setting the stage for more productive communication overall.
And when you look at it from a larger perspective, that’s what Gemba walks are about—listening and learning, talking through problems and developing solutions together.