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How to Conduct an Inspired Gemba Walk

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How to Conduct an Inspired Gemba Walk

So, what is “Gemba”?  In simplistic terms – it’s where “work” happens or the “actual place”.  The Gemba doesn’t have to be specific to manufacturing (a common misnomer).   Often Gemba’s are invisible or cyber in nature – some examples:

  • Material and Information Flow
  • The day in the life of a document
  • Following a policy in human resources
  • Specifications in Engineering
  • Software integration
  • Date entry

In my experience from discussions and observations there are different expressions of a Gemba Walk across various types of businesses. In an organization trying to evolve a lean culture it’s important to understand how essential an effective Gemba walk can be in regard to developing people.  

Have you ever conducted a Gemba walk with executives, and they are either bored or asked only the wrong questions? Let’s demonstrate what I am talking about with an example.

A colleague had recently been appointed VP of business process improvement and along with the director of operations had embarked on transforming the oldest manufacturing plant to a lean enterprise by applying lean principles.

The VP had persuaded the president, his boss, that Lean was the answer to maintaining a competitive edge in their highly cost-competitive consumer products industry. With support of the president the VP had been delivering monthly two-hour training sessions in Lean concepts to the management team. The training session had proceeded for about a year. The VP along with the president decided that it was time for the management team to participate in a Gemba walk of the facility and much to their chagrin the walk was a bust.

The VP called me in to discuss the failed attempt at a Gemba walk. During my plant visit I saw the early incremental process improvements and the beginnings of visual management in use. I also attended two of the VP’s ongoing monthly Lean meetings with the executive team to get a feel for the group. In the second meeting, I suggested a returned Gemba walk this time structured by Gemba worksheets. I structured the visit with different pairs of management teams tasked with finding the answers to a subset of diagnostic questions in different areas of the plant. (The first failed plant visit was six months earlier. In that time, the plant had made significant strides in Lean and visual controls). The management team agreed to visit the plant again, but this time on a mission to assess the effectiveness of the initial implementation of the Lean management system.

In a brief meeting with the president after the management team meeting, he expressed an eagerness to get more actively involved with Lean. The date was set to conduct the Gemba walk on the day of a quarterly business management review.

We paired up the management team members, assigned them guides to make sure they got to the right areas of the plant, handed out the Lean management Gemba Worksheets with highlighted diagnostic questions, briefed them on their tasks, and set them loose.

It was awesome to observe. The pairs of managers were intensely focused on finding the answers to their highlighted questions. They practically ran from one assigned area to the next. They took extensive notes. They even had heated discussions with each other about what ratings to assign. They listened intently and questioned the rationale when their Lean coaches critiqued the ratings they gave to their assigned areas. These managers were engaged and involved.

The Lean initiative has continued at this plant and later spread to two newer plants. My client, the VP, indicated that the structured Gemba walk had broken the ice for the management team. They felt they had a tool and process to guide their assessment of what they saw and heard when visiting lean project areas in the company’s plants and offices.

A question a leader (or anyone) going to the Gemba should always ask is – “What value are you adding to the organization by going?”  Are we removing barriers and constraints for people to do their process in the most effective and efficient way?   Are we providing resources for people to be successful in problem solving? To conclude, if you are facing resistance or a lack of interest from your management team to participate in your lean initiative, Gemba walks can minimize or eliminate the resistance and boredom, but they may need to be structured to focus your management team on asking the right questions.

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