The 5S, Kaizen, and Kanban methods, the Six Sigma approach, just-in-time production… these are just a few of the tools and methodologies used in LEAN management. Now, we’re going to add the Gemba walk. What does Gemba mean? What is a Gemba walk? What are the keys to a successful Gemba walk? Let’s find out!

What is a Gemba walk?

Gemba is a Japanese term meaning “actual place.” In LEAN management, it refers to the physical location where the work is being done.

Gemba walking, also known as floor walking, is a management technique that promotes communication and efficiency. It could involve a team leader or supervisor going out to meet team members, or an executive touring the company or visiting a particular sector.

The goal: Gather information right in the field, rather than relying on reports, second-hand information, or assumptions. Gemba walks provide an opportunity to observe and understand processes and procedures. They also foster closeness and trust with employees.

Gemba walks have many benefits. Among others, they:

Give insight into the actual state of the workplace

Foster ties with other members of the company, regardless of level

Allow managers to examine process efficiency

Promote continuous improvement in all areas of the company

A successful Gemba walk involves 7 steps. Read on to learn what they are.

Step 1: Get ready

Before going out into the field, identify the aspects you want to focus on, like productivity, safety, bottlenecks, communication between team members, or problems or challenges to overcome.

If you’re a manager visiting a specific area, take the time to gather information about it, like performance indicators and the results of the latest workplace happiness index survey. This will help you ask the employees on the ground more relevant questions.

Step 2: Invite others

Surrounding yourself with a team of people from different sectors and hierarchical levels will give you access to a variety of perspectives. The other people might notice something you’ve missed or approach an issue from a different angle.

Step 3: Observe and ask questions

Ready to start your walk and meet with your team? Now it’s time to observe and ask the questions you prepared in Step 1. Of course, feel free to improvise based on what you see.

Make sure your questions are open, clear, and simple. That way, you’ll get relevant, useful answers. Examples:

  • Why is the preventive maintenance and checklist sheet located in this specific place?
  • How are you involved in the day-to-day maintenance of machinery and tools?
  • How long does our equipment spend in unscheduled downtime each day?

Last but not least, be empathetic, open-minded, and a good listener.

Step 4: Observe, don’t manage

Remember, you’re an observer, not an investigator. The main purpose of the walk is to get closer to your employees and understand their realities, challenges, and issues.

Show them that you’re not there to manage them, but to observe and help them find solutions to their problems.

Finally, memory isn’t infallible, so don’t rely exclusively on that. It’s a good idea to take notes.

Step 5: Examine your findings

Once the walk is over, it’s time to consider what you’ve learned from your observations, questions, and discussions. You’ve identified strengths and areas for improvement: an irritant to correct, a communication problem to resolve, a step in a process to improve…

There’s no need to rush into finding a solution and applying it immediately. Instead, let the people involved find their own solution, while showing them that you’re there to support them.

Step 6: Plan your next Gemba walk

A Gemba walk isn’t meant to be one-and-done event. You should try to schedule walks on a regular basis. How often, exactly? There’s no right or wrong answer. It really depends on your company and factors like its size, industry, and specific concerns.

Step 7: Collect employee feedback

The last thing you want is for your employees to think you’re watching them, which is why this last step is so important in bringing your Gemba walk full circle.

Share your findings with the employees you met. Start with the strengths and then move on to the areas in need of improvement. Do they agree with you? Do they have anything to add?

Then, invite them to use their creativity to find solutions. They’ll feel much more involved and recognized than if you arrive with an action plan.

Now you know all the steps to a successful Gemba walk. All you have to do is follow them and reap the benefits!

by Bernard Gagnon
LEAN Six Sigma Master Black Belt,
Professional Scrum Master PSM I

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