Updated: Oct 27
In Lean leadership, the concept of Gemba walks stands as a fundamental tool for process improvement and Organisational Excellence. Gemba – the Japanese translation of “the actual place” – represents the physical location where value is created, or the work is done, like a factory floor.
Gemba walks involve leaders and managers going to the shop floor or office to observe, understand, and collaborate with employees in their daily activities. In this article, we will explore what Gemba walks are, the pivotal role of leadership, and the best practices for effective Gemba walks.
What is a Gemba walk?
Gemba walks are a cornerstone of Lean thinking. They originated from the Toyota Production System (TPS), where Taiichi Ohno, one of its key architects, emphasised the importance of observing the actual place where work happens. The term “Gemba” underscores the belief that real insights and opportunities for improvement can only be obtained by going to the source rather than relying on reports, emails, or second-hand information.
What is the purpose of a Gemba walk?
The primary purpose of a Gemba walk is to gain a deep understanding of your current processes, identify inefficiencies, eliminate waste, and foster a culture of Continuous Improvement.
By physically being where the work occurs, leaders can:
Identify different forms of waste – overproduction, defects, waiting, inventory, motion, transportation, and underused employee skills (the ‘8 Wastes’).
Engage with front-line employees through a direct line of communication, promoting a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility for improvement.
Verify the accuracy of data and reports, ensuring decisions are based on real facts.
Develop a deeper understanding of the work processes, challenges, and opportunities, fostering a culture of continuous learning.
The role of leadership in Gemba
Leadership plays a pivotal role in the success of Gemba walks:
1. Leading by example
When employees see leaders actively participating in Gemba walks and taking an interest in understanding their work, it motivates further engagement in the improvement process.
2. Asking questions and listening actively
Leaders should approach Gemba walks with a curious mindset. They must ask open-ended questions, listen attentively to employees' concerns, and encourage them to share their insights and ideas.
3. Providing Support
Leaders must use their position to remove obstacles, provide necessary resources, and support teams in implementing improvements identified during Gemba walks. This demonstrates their commitment to the process and empowers employees.
4. Developing Problem-Solving Skills
Team leader development should foster a problem-solving culture by coaching employees on root-cause analysis and problem-solving methodologies. This helps teams address issues at their source.
Best practices for effective Gemba walks
To ensure the success of Gemba walks, it’s essential to follow best practices:
Before embarking on a Gemba walk, define a clear purpose and set specific objectives. Knowing what you want to achieve helps focus the observation and discussion.
Select the right team
Choose a diverse team that includes leaders, subject matter experts, and front-line employees. This mix of perspectives enhances the chances of identifying various issues and solutions.
Be respectful and non-intrusive
Respect the work environment and each employee’s role. Don’t be intrusive, and seek permission when observing or taking notes. The goal is to understand and support, not disrupt.
Go beyond surface observations
Dig deep into processes and workflows. Challenge assumptions to uncover the root causes of problems rather than just addressing symptoms.
Take detailed notes and photographs to capture on-site observations, issues, and opportunities for improvement. Documenting findings ensures accountability and helps track progress.
Implement rapid improvements
Act on the insights gained during Gemba walks promptly. Encourage teams to implement changes swiftly, with a focus on Continuous Improvement.
Example of a Gemba walk in the manufacturing industry
Let’s consider a real-world example.
A company called XYZ Automotive Manufacturing aims to improve the efficiency of their assembly line.
Gemba walk process:
Preparation: The production manager, quality control supervisor, and two engineers plan the Gemba walk. Their objective is to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the assembly process.
Team selection: Including the CEO, who wants to show commitment to Lean principles, the production manager for process expertise, the quality control supervisor for quality-related insights, and two engineers for technical perspectives.
Observation: The team spends a day on the assembly line observing the workflow, talking to assembly line workers, and noting areas of waste and delay. They also collect data on production rates and quality.
Findings: The Gemba walk reveals that workers frequently run out of a critical component, leading to line stoppages. The team also notices that some workstations have unnecessary movement, causing inefficiencies.
Immediate action: The production manager allocates resources to maintain an adequate stock of the critical components. The engineers reconfigure the layout to minimise unnecessary movement.
Follow-up: Regular Gemba walks are scheduled to monitor progress and address any new issues that arise. The assembly line efficiency improves significantly over time.
Learn more about Gemba walks
Gemba walks are a powerful tool to uncover waste, engage employees, and drive Continuous Improvement. Plus, active involvement from leadership in Gemba walks sets the tone for a culture of Continuous Improvement.
By adhering to best practices and learning from real-world examples, organisations can harness the full potential of Gemba walks to achieve operational excellence.
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