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Gemba Walk: Where the Real Work Happens - Veritastech.org


When you’re looking for ways to improve a process, the boardroom may not be the best place to begin. It’s easy to overlook some important detail when you’re considering a process in an abstract way - veritastech.org

Toyota realized this and incorporated the Gemba Walk into its Lean and Six Sigma philosophies. And as you probably know, businesses all over the world have benefited from implementing Lean and Six Sigma. So, what is a Gemba Walk, and how can you get it working for you?

The word “Gemba” is Japanese for “the real place.” Visiting the real places where your business generates value is what the Gemba Walk is all about. In practice, it means spending time watching processes in action and asking people who are at the coalface questions about the work they do. The information you gather during a Gemba walk serves as the basis for your process improvement initiative.

Although the Gemba Walk was developed in a manufacturing context, it applies to any type of process. So, even if you’re in a service industry, it’s worth taking a closer look at how your team navigates processes.

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Imagine your Six Sigma project team being in danger of losing touch with the process that it’s trying to improve. How can this be when your team focuses so intensely on every aspect of the process they are improving? They gather extensive data on process performance, exhaustively analyze every step of the process and work tirelessly to find new ways to improve it. 

Wouldn’t this close connection ensure that your team has a solid understanding of how the process works and how to improve it?  

The risk is not that your team will fail to understand the process, but that the team will begin to see the process as a theoretical abstraction that exists only on a white board, and produces only numbers on a spreadsheet. Project teams begin to lose their way when they forget that a process consists of real people doing actual work that affects real-life customers. 

This happens when team members begin to become removed from the process. When a team is physically distant from the process, it will develop only a vague understanding of how the process truly works. That vague understanding produces inadequate improvements. 

Keep It Real with a Gemba Walk

The best way to prevent the process that your team is improving from becoming a vague theory is to step out of the conference room and visit the production line, factory floor or service center where the process actually lives. 

Japanese quality professionals call this a Gemba: meaning “real thing” or “the real place.” The Gemba Walk originated in Japan and is now being applied in companies all over the world. 

Taking a Gemba walk requires a manager to schedule 10 to 15 minutes on a regular basis for the Six Sigma team to visit the shop floor. The team takes time to speak to line managers and front-line workers to learn how the process works and how it is performing. 

Your project team can obtain the benefits of the Gemba Walk by keeping a few simple principles in mind.

  • Do it right – The Gemba Walk is a chance for your team to observe the process and learn how it is working. It is not an opportunity to talk about problems and propose solutions, to criticize the process or to record complaints from workers.
  • Look closer – The purpose of the Gemba Walk is to give project teams a chance to observe the process in action. Quiet and attentive observation helps team members understand the process better. It also plants seeds in team members’ minds that, when nourished with reflection and discussion, often bloom into new and innovative ideas. 
  • Not MBWA – Years ago leaders were encouraged to practice “management by walking around” (MBWA). This involved managers randomly wandering the factory floor hoping to stumble upon obvious problems they might be able to solve. The Gemba Walk is different in that it requires a purpose. Team members must know why they are observing and what they are trying to learn. 

Don’t let the team forget that the project you’re improving is not just an abstraction on paper. It is a real processes manned by real people. Ten minutes of live observation can teach your team more about the process than ten hours of theoretical conversation.  

How Does Gemba Actually Work? 

Here are five ways in which a Gemba Walk can help your team understand a process better. 

  • Focuses Attention – Team members face a daunting number of tasks that compete for their time and attention and pull them away from their Six Sigma duties. Activities such as meetings, phone calls, emails, planning and, of course, their daily work responsibilities, sidetrack team members from process improvement. 

    Participating in a Gemba Walk helps put key people in front of the functioning process, allowing them to see it in action and focus directly on the process.
  • Creates a Common Vision – Team members may say that they understand the process, and all may claim to see it the same way. Every team member may even use the same words to describe the process you’re working on. Don’t fall into this misperception. Each team member likely sees and understands the process slightly differently. Some differences are subtle, some are dramatic. 

    Gathering all members of the project team together in the same place at the same time to observe the same process in action is one of the most powerful tools available for creating a common understanding of the process. 
  • Includes Real-Life People – Front-line workers have their minds on the process every single day, and they are critical in determining product quality. These workers are experts in how the process works. A Gemba Walk gives project teams a chance to talk to these workers face to face and learn where the process works well and where it could benefit from change.  
  • Gives the Big Picture – Project teams tend to rely heavily on graphical data displays such as Pareto Charts, Histograms and Run Charts to measure how well the process is performing. While these tools are helpful, they have one serious deficiency – they may not be measuring the right thing. 

    If your team never leaves the conference room, and its only interaction with the process is a paper printout displaying the past performance of one aspect of production, your solutions will likely be incomplete.

    When your team members understand the entire process, because they have seen it in action, they are far more likely to evaluate all aspects of the process, and not just a few of the most obvious ones.   
  • Primes the Subconscious Mind – The interworking of the mind and senses are beyond the scope of Six Sigma methodology, but they play an important role in problem solving. Project teams can gain a powerful understanding of the process by taking a Gemba Walk, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

    Every second the human senses send the brain over 11 million bits of information. The conscious mind is only aware of 50 bits of this information. Using the same 220,000 to 1 ratio it could be said that for every insight, observation and idea that a team member gains from a Gemba Walk, there are 220,000 others locked away in the subconscious mind. Planting this raw material in your team members’ minds helps them produce more creative insights and more effective solutions. 

Don’t lose touch with the process that your team is trying to improve. Take a Gemba walk and see that the process consists of real people doing real work for real customers. When the process is real to your team, you can generate much more creative solutions and implement better improvements.

How the Gemba Walk Works

Walking around looking at things and asking questions may sound simple, but in order to get the best value for your time, you need to follow a systematic process yourself.

1. Prepare for the Gemba Walk

Although one person can do a Gemba Walk on his or her own, especially in smaller businesses, it’s best to have a small team to help you get the full picture from a variety of perspectives.  What you miss, another team member may notice, or perhaps you notice the same things but focus in on different details.

Who should you consider including in your team? Consider these people as potential Gemba Walk team members:

  • A manager who is relatively unfamiliar with the process you’re studying. He or she will have fewer preconceived ideas and will give you the fresh perspective you need.
  • A supplier whose equipment or materials are used in the process. You will have the benefit of technical knowledge you don’t have. Is your equipment being used correctly? Are your materials being used efficiently? Your supplier may have valuable input to give.
  • A customer may not be your number one choice for a Gemba Walk team but consider it nonetheless. What you think your customers want and what they value could be two different things.
  • A sales representative has direct contact with customers and knows what they want. Besides giving input, it will also help your sales representatives to see how value is created.

2. Prepare Your Staff for Your Gemba Walk

You don’t want the team or teams under observation to feel uncomfortable with the Gemba Walk, so they need to know what you’re trying to achieve. Make sure they understand that a Gemba Walk aims to collect information that could make their jobs easier. It’s not about people and their individual performance. Instead, it’s about processes and making them more efficient for the good of all concerned.

When you brief your staff on the Gemba Walk, ask for suggestions. The people who physically do the work involved will often have the best insight into problem areas they’d like you to attend to. Asking for input and being receptive to the feedback you get helps your staff to feel that their opinions are of value and increases their engagement in the process improvement drive.

Essentially, the message you’re trying to get across is: “We’re taking a new look at an old process and as we do this, we’re going to ask you a bunch of questions. There are no wrong answers. Feel free to respond honestly. We’re not here to criticise you or your work, and your contribution to what we’re trying to achieve will be valued.”

3. Know What You Want to Achieve

“Process improvement” is a very broad term. What, precisely, are you hoping to achieve? For example, you may want to:

  • Find ways to save time
  • Address quality issues
  • Reduce costs
  • Improve workplace safety
  • Reduce any of the seven wastes of Lean
  • Improve service and customer experience

4. Know That Gemba isn’t MBWA

Because both activities involve walkabouts, managers often get confused between Gemba Walks and Management by Walking About (MBWA). However, there are fundamental differences between the two. MBWA is much less focused, and it doesn’t involve the in-depth observation and open-ended questioning that form a fundamental part of the Gemba Walk process.

If this sounds a little intimidating, don’t worry. You don’t have to acquire the expertise of every person whose role in the process falls under observation. Instead, you will rely on the people doing the work to share their insights and expert opinions on the work they do. Asking the right questions will get you this information, and we’ll look at this aspect of the Gemba Walk shortly.

5. Follow Your Value Chain from Beginning to End

There’s no better way to observe a process than following it from the point where your business springs into action all the way through to a finished product or service delivery.

Transfer time, the time it takes for your teams or employees to hand over to the next team or employee, and queue time after handover are often fertile ground for process improvement. The best way to spot bottlenecks or delays in a process is to follow it from start to finish.

6. Remain Focussed on the Process

Now that you’ve planned your route and have prepared yourself and your staff, your Gemba Walk begins. Remember, you’ve told your people that you’re not there to criticize them or their work. You are not gathering data for a personnel performance evaluation. Keep this firmly in mind.

This can be hard to do when you notice Johnny slacking off at the coffee machine, or catch Jenny messing around with her smartphone when she would be working. But if you intimidate your employees by finding fault, you’ve lost their engagement and can’t expect them to be open to you when questioned.

Some of the answers to your questions may not be what you want to hear, but again, the Gemba Walk isn’t the time to pass judgment on your employees, their opinions, or how you perceive their attitude. Remain focused on the process.

7. Ask the Right Questions

Remember that you are taking a fresh look at a process. Putting aside your preconceived ideas on what to do, how to do it, and when to do it may be hard to do, but it’s exactly what you should do. Some companies find this so difficult that they employ consultants to do the Gemba Walk. If you’re doing it yourself, try to approach it as if you knew absolutely nothing about the business process you’re investigating.

You may also find that the people engaged in a process have unofficially tweaked it for one reason or another. So, even if you think you’re up to speed with how a process is performed, try to forget this knowledge. Keep an open mind and don’t tackle any people performance issues you think you’ve identified.

All your questions should be open-ended. Questions that require “yes” or “no” answers, are out. Instead, you want people to elaborate. To get answers that will make your Gemba Walk effective, ask questions using the 5 W’s.

Who?

  • Who is involved in this part of the process?
  • Who sets the work in motion?
  • Who does what?
  • Who else can do it?
  • Who should do it?
  • Who will take over when this part of the process is complete?

Note: “Who” is a people word. Beware of asking who should be blamed for any problems you pick up!

What?

  • What inputs do you receive?
  • What do you do with them?
  • What could or should be done instead?
  • What outputs are you expected to deliver?
  • What factors cause delays or waste?

Note: “How” questions are also open-ended, and if you think they will help to clarify the “What” questions, feel free to add some.

Where?

  • Where do materials or other inputs come from?
  • Where is the work performed?
  • Where else could it or should it be done?
  • Where do your outputs go?
  • Where are tools and equipment located?

Note: Movement doesn’t add value, and it takes time, so you want to limit this as much as possible. Small changes can make a big difference. Save a second, and you just saved that time multiplied by however many times the employee performs that portion of a task.

When?

  • When do you receive process inputs?
  • When would be the best time to receive them?
  • When do you find yourself waiting for something you need?
  • When are you able to begin working on turning inputs into outputs (queue time)?
  • When is your work complete?
  • When you have completed your part of the process, how do you hand it over to the next staff member or department?
  • When does the next sub-process begin?

Why?

  • Why do we perform this step or sub-step?
  • Why do you do this portion of the task?
  • Why perform tasks in this specific order?
  • Why is it important to our customers?

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8. Log Your Observations

Your Gemba Walk will produce a large amount of information. In retrospect, you may find that observations that seemed trivial at the time impact on your process improvement strategy. Recording observations electronically is helpful because you and your team can share them, collate them, and decide where action is required. But even jotted-down pen and paper notes will be more helpful than nothing at all.

You aren’t going to even try analyzing the data you collect on a Gemba Walk and turning it into actions until after you’ve seen the whole picture. By that time, you could have forgotten crucial details. You and your team’s notes are therefore extremely valuable to the Gemba Walk’s success.

A camera can also be helpful. For instance, if you notice that there is redundant equipment that gets in the way, or if you observe that equipment layouts could be improved, you can link photographs to notes when trying to resolve the issue. Video is likewise useful on occasion.

9. Never Base Findings on Assumptions

If ten people do the same job, they can still do it in ten different ways. And even if you think there’s a cast-in-stone process methodology, people may have adapted it or interpreted it differently to you. An open mind is a prerequisite for a Gemba Walk. Assumptions are not facts. Get the facts.

10. Never Start Implementing Changes During a Gemba Walk

By all means, collect suggestions from employees, but never make any decisions or try to implement any changes right away. You first need the big picture. Then you need time to consider it carefully. What looks like a great idea for process improvement when you’re visiting sub-process one may not seem like such a good idea once you’ve reached sub-process ten.

Changing processes should never be done on an ad-hoc basis. You may find that there are unexpected impacts you didn’t take into account.

11. Give Your Employees Feedback

Before and during your Gemba Walk, you Employees gave their insights and suggestions. They deserve feedback even if you aren’t planning to make a single change. Whether you call a general meeting or send feedback in the form of a report or an electronic message, your teams will want to know what your findings were.

Although they may not have been among your Gemba Walk analysts or observers, your employees certainly took part in the process. Remember to give recognition to those who were free with information, suggestions, and opinions. Explain why certain changes were adopted, and if you decided not to implement certain suggestions, give the reasons you chose not to do so.

12. Follow up With Subsequent Gemba Walks

You’ve made changes to processes, but how effective are those changes? Your stats might look good, but stats can be misleading. Maybe you haven’t achieved the results you wanted after all. Why don’t you see your projected results? The only way to know is to follow up, and since you’re working with practical realities rather than abstract theories, another Gemba walk is in order.

Alternatively, you didn’t spot anything that needed change, but is your process really perfect? Are processes still happening in the same way as they did before? Once again, a new Gemba Walk will help to provide you with the insights you need to answer these questions.

 

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