Effective Gemba Walks

Conducting an effective Gemba Walk.

Gemba walks are a critical part of any Lean Transformation. For the Gemba walk to be effective, one must realize that it is much more then simply walking into the work area and having a conversation with your process partners. The Gemba walk must be done with consistency, purpose, and consideration for both the people and the process. Here are some things to consider before you go on your next Gemba walk.

Before you go.

Before the walk takes place spend some time prepping for the activity. You will need to define who will be visiting the process, for how long and when. What is the purpose of your Gemba walk? There are a number of different reasons for us to engage in Gemba walks. We may be on a waste walk, looking to assure alignment, looking at process compliance & efficiency, or assuring that your visual management systems are working. We need to decide what specific things we will be examining while we are on our walk. If you have a team going on the walk, break the observations down and have each person look at a different element of the process.

You are going to want to learn as much as possible about the process before you start. You should be specific and answer the following questions:

Specifically what process are you going to visit? Choosing what process to visit is an important part of planning. You want to make sure that you randomize the approach to some extent. You want to see the process in its normal state rather than when they are expecting visitors. A useful technique is to set up a drop box somewhere in the plant. (Much like a suggestion box) where a card can be filled out and dropped into the box anonymously by any employee if they feel like you should visit a particular process. Of course the leadership team should also add cards to the box to make sure that the selection is broad enough to get a good representative sample of reality. Once you have chosen what process to visit its time to do a little homework.

What do you already know about the process? Is there documentation that you can review in advance such as standard work, SOP’s, or operator instructions?

For back office and transactional processes you’ll want to know “What is the purpose of the process”? This seems like a bit of a silly question but you would be surprised how often the people that work in the process believe that their process is intended to do something entirely different that than the original design intent. This is a great question to assure alignment. You will also want to know who owns the process. This is very different than who owns the people and may be quite revealing. You will often find although someone “owns” the people who work the process, nobody owns the process itself and this can be a huge source of frustration, communication issues, and even process defects.

What metrics are available to review before you go to the process? You will want to know.:  How has the process been performing in regards to quality and schedule performance recently ?(or in the case of a back office or transactional process do they even have a schedule or a quality system)

How many people are supposed to be working in the process? You will want to compare this figure with your actual observation when you get to the process. Keep in mind, just because someone is in the area, doesn’t mean they are in the process.

During the Walk

The first rule of the Gemba walk is not to solve problems while engaging in the activity. We want to observe only. Resist the temptation to jump in and problem solve. We take our observations back and look for systematic problems. For an example, if you notice that the workers in a process are not doing the job in a standard way, you will want to understand if that is a problem with one area, or the whole organization. Either one of these situations will require a very different approach to correct. We want to be thoughtful in that approach so we only have to solve the problem once.

Remember we are looking for what is right, not just what is wrong. The Gemba walk allows leaders a unique opportunity to focus on a single element of the process. This is not normally the case when you are just walking through a work area. This allows you the opportunity to ask non-threatening questions to employees, explain why certain things are important, and recognize them when they are doing something right. Use the Gemba walk to assure alignment with your priorities, and take the time to recognize and thank employees who are adding value for your customers.

Asking the right questions is a critical element of the Gemba walk. We want to get, by observing and listening, the perspective of the people who work the process. In order to do that we have to make sure that we are as non-threatening as possible. Take the time to introduce yourself and learn the name of the person you are speaking with (if you don’t already know it). Explain why you are there and what you are trying to accomplish (hint, improve the process). Find out something about the person that you did not already know. Do what you can to make the person as comfortable as possible before moving into questioning. We want to make sure we ask questions that require a response beyond a simple yes or no. Here are some questions to consider.

  • Is there anything about your work that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable?
  • If you could change anything about your process what would it be?
  • If something changes in your process, how is it communicated?
  • How do you know if you are winning or losing right now?
  • What are the most important measures of success for you and your team? Do you know how you are doing against those metrics?
  • Do you know what the most important thing is for you work on next?
  • Does anyone ever ask you for your ideas on how to improve the process?
  • How do you know that the parts / documents/ items you are producing are the right level of quality?
  • If you had a question about the quality of the work that you were doing, how would you find the answer?

It should be stated that asking the questions is only part of the effort. Listening to the response and asking follow up questions is even more important. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t multi-task, be in the moment. Your smart phone can wait until the conversation is complete.
  • Don’t pontificate. Everyone you meet knows something that you don’t. Especially about the process that they work. You role is to gather information and assure alignment.
  • Be brief and spend most of your time listening. Try not to think ahead to the next question you are going to ask, go with the flow of the conversation.
  • When the say something right, reinforce that behavior by pointing it out and thanking them for it. This will go a long way.
  • Remember to smile.

Post Gemba Walk

When the walk is complete, you will want to spend a few moments reflecting on what you have observed. If you have performed the walk as a team, then regroup as a team. This action should be done immediately after the walk while everything is fresh in your mind. What was discovered while you were observing the process? What was right? What could have improved? Of the things that need to improve, are they systematic or isolated to this process? Capture your observations on a list; assign actions where necessary.

Don’t try to fix everything at once. It is easy to overwhelm the process owner by handing them a list of all the things they need to fix in the process. Instead, pick out the top two or three (no more than three) items that you need to have fixed right away. Have a discussion with the process owner regarding your observations. Before going into the things in the process that were “wrong”, make sure you highlight what was right. Start the conversation with the process owner on a positive note. It’s a good idea for the process owner to see the whole list, but make sure they understand your priorities. Make sure that the process owner acknowledges the top items in writing including completion dates and follow up dates. Make these actions public on the Blue Wall. After the completion of the agreed on items, formally re-visit the area and congratulate the team on the good work.

The final step in the Gemba walk process is to repeat the activity. The process of walking the Gemba with purpose is an activity that needs to be an ingrained part of the leadership team’s (including all areas of plant leadership) daily work. Make it public, make it specific, but most importantly make it consistent. This needs to be an activity that workers understand is a regular event that is designed not to tear them down, but to make the organization a better place. This will require that Leadership approaches the activity with both seriousness and kindness. In just a few months, you will see the results of these activities.


Leave a Reply