By Tony Heath, PhD, CPHQ, Lean Consultant with OptumCare, a business of UnitedHealth Group

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood” – Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit

What is the Gemba?

The gemba is a Japanese term for “the actual place.” All across the world, lean enthusiasts think of the gemba as the actual place where value is created.

Toyoda Akido, from Toyota fame, describes gemba as “the flesh and blood” workplace. The term is physical rather than abstract, humane rather than mechanical, warm and compassionate rather than formal and bureaucratic.

There are a few other variations for the gemba:

  • Japanese detectives call the crime scene “gemba”
  • Japanese reporters say they are “reporting live from gemba”
  • Universities may have a Global Executive Masters of Business Administration

Of course, any place where value is created is also a place where waste will also exist. You will find the gemba in all organizations: financial services, healthcare, government, retailing, restaurants, construction, and all the others. An office full of work cubes, a hospital emergency room, a drivers license facility, the check-in counter at the airport, a bottling line at a brewery, or your garage, are all places where value is created.

What is the Gemba
What is a Gemba Walk

What is a Gemba Walk?

A gemba walk is a walking visit, around the gemba, while work is being done.

The walk may be limited to one work area or it could include the whole site.

A gemba walk is not a presentation in a conference room or a quick meeting in front of some performance reporting station. It needs to be a deeper dive.

Why do a Gemba Walk?

Gemba walks allow people to see how value is created and get a sense of what is going well and what is not.

For a lean organization, a gemba walk is focued upon the concept standard work. A chance to see if standard work exists and is being followed.

A gemba walker can also witness how workers approach problem solving, continuous improvement, and teamwork.

Taking a gemba walk allows leaders and stakeholders to get out from behind their desks and go to see what is happening.

The goal is to observe, listen, learn, and help.

It is crucial for gemba walkers to convey simple curiosity about the people and processes. The goal is not to audit or criticize. In some cases, a manager could choose to make a correction in the process, but this should not be the purpose of the gemba walk.

Why do a Gemba Walk

“There are three kinds of leaders. Those that tell you what to do. Those that allow you to do what you want. And lean leaders who come down to the work and help you figure it out” – John Shook

Gemba Walkers

Who are the Gemba Walkers?

There are all types of people who can take a gemba walk. Common gemba walkers include:

  1. Managers and Supervisors
  2. Extended Team Members
  3. Executive Leadership
  4. Customers and Suppliers

Let’s look closer at each one…

1. Managers and Supervisors

By far, the most common gemba walks are daily or hourly walks done by Managers and Supervisors of a work area.

These walks may account for 90% of all gemba walks. Managers and Supervisors want to know what is happening now compared to what should be happening now.

Typical questions include:

  • What’s happening – right now?
  • Where does your process fit in the overall value stream?
  • What do you do to keep improvements working?
  • What materials are used in the process?
  • When does the task take place?
  • How do you decide what to do next?
  • What problems do you have?
  • What ideas do you have to improve the process?
  • Where do you need help – right now?

While gemba walkers should not bark out orders, a manager or supervisor should intervene to address any safety or quality issues.

Managers and Supervisors
Managers and Supervisors

2. Extended Team Members

The next most common gemba walkers are people who support the work area. Extended team members could be from HR, IT, EH&S, purchasing, scheduling, customer service, sales, finance, and many others.

These gemba walker can learn how their colleagues do their work and where they could help.

Common questions include:

  • What do you do?
  • What is the standard work for your role?
  • Where do you find a copy of the written document?
  • What is the purpose of your process?
  • Who depends on the outcome?
  • What does the customer want from this process?
  • How can I best support you?
  • How often do you succeed in making your work process better?
Extended Team Members

3. Executive Leadership

Executives seek to understand how the cultural transformation is progressing.

It’s critical for executive walkers to demonstrate support for workers knowing how to meet customer requirements and being in a position to identify and eliminate waste. Additionally, picking up on employee attitudes and general workplace organization are critical objectives.

Typical questions for executives walkers include:

  • What do you do?
  • How do you know what to do?
  • Who else is involved on your team?
  • What is the purpose of your process?
  • Who depends on the outcome?
  • What does the customer want from this process?
  • How safe do you feel when you are at work?
  • What do you do when you see a safety problem?
  • Who is the customer for this specific order?
  • Do you have the tools, materials, equipment, and information you need?
Executive Leadership

“Where leaders spend their time determines what is important to their organization!” – Mike Stickler

4. Customers and Suppliers

Outsiders can make observations which no one has ever considered.

Customers can see how their orders are fulfilled. They might see where too much effort is going into unnecessary work or where more attention to detail is needed.

Suppliers can see how their materials, equipment, tools, or information is used. They might see where they can make an improvement or provide a suggestion to eliminate waste. One special type of supplier is someone providing training or helping with an improvement project. They have a specific obligation to observe, listen, learn, and help.

Effective questions include:

  • What is the purpose of your process?
  • Who is the customer for this specific order?
  • How do you like your work?
  • How is the quality of the production of your process?
  • What quality challenges do you have?
  • What do you do when you have an idea for an improvement?
  • How do you feel about your role in creating your end product?
  • How do you keep you area clean?
  • What affects the time it takes to complete your process?
Customers and Suppliers
After the Gemba Walk

After the Walk

Many gemba walkers will want to provide reports to the managers and supervisors and perhaps the company executives.

It should not be about criticizing individual employees or announcing what needs to be done. Instead, a gemba walker can share observations where waste is hindering the creation of value.

And don’t forget, a customer, supplier, or extended team member may have learned where they can go back and change their process to make work easier and more effective for the gemba they just walked!

Conclusion

During a recent gemba walk, I observed two workers, for a couple of hours, as they performed their work. I asked questions like those above and learned a lot about their work. I showed them respect. When the time was up and I had to move on, one of them turned and thanked me and commented: “You’re the first person who has ever shown real interest in what we do!”

I like to think that everyone who visits the gemba with benevolent intent gets candid feedback like this. And I like to think that workers go home and tell their family that the day went well.

Whatever you do, don’t have a list of memorized questions. The first answer you get may reveal a more interesting path. Like a detective, you need to follow the leads. Open-ended questions get richer responses – and send you down the road less traveled.

Conclusion

“I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

Tony Heath

About Tony Heath

Tony Heath is a certified lean process improvement consultant and a black belt for OptumCare, a business of UnitedHealth Group. He has worked leading continuous improvement within the healthcare industry for 18 years. He holds a PhD in Family Therapy from Purdue and currently serves on its Midwest Board for the Association for Manufacturing Excellence.

Tony enjoys native gardening, making great coffee, and drinking great beer and good whiskey. He is a lean fixer of everything broken.

His motto is: Better, better, better.

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References

Franklin Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

KaiNexus, The Guide to Effective Gemba Walks

KaiNexus, A Few Profound Thoughts on Gemba Walks

Jim Womack, Gemba Walks

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