Where is value-added work being done for your customer? It is most likely done on the shop floor or in an office somewhere. Gemba is a concept where a manager is expected to be out where the work is being done to observe, solve problems, look for improvement opportunities, and make decisions based on their first-hand observation and input from the people doing the work. Let’s see how Gemba works and can be applied to your organization.

Overview: What is Gemba?

Taiichi Ohno is credited with the development of the Toyota Production System (TPS), the foundation of Lean Manufacturing. Gemba is a foundational concept of TPS. Ohno believed the ability to make informed decisions and solve problems required a manager to have first-hand experience of what is going on in the workplace. This means going to the source and seeing how the process is working.

Genchi Gembutsu is a similar concept, although there is a slight difference between it and Gemba. Gemba refers to going to the generic place where the work is being done. Genchi Gembutsu is going to the source to be sure you have the right information for making a good decision. Gemba is a place; Genchi Gembutsu is an action.

A Gemba Walk is the activity of going to where the work is being done. The steps of conducting a Gemba Walk are as follows:

Steps for a Gemba Walk

1. Pick a theme

When you go to Gemba, you should have a theme. This will help you focus your efforts. Your theme could be such things as productivity, cost efficiency, safety, etc. This will allow you to prepare a list of relevant questions to ask before you do your Walk.

2. Prepare your team

The work team you will be observing needs to understand that the purpose of the Gemba Walk is eventually continuous improvement of the process. This way, people will feel more comfortable and willing to engage.

3. Focus on the process, not on people

The main purpose of a Walk is to observe, understand, and improve the process and not to criticize or evaluate performance at that time. If you focus on people and not the process, you will meet resistance and disengagement.

4. Be where the value stream is

Following the value stream will give you the best opportunities to identify areas with a high potential for eliminating waste and improving the process.

5. Record your observations

Don’t offer recommendations during the Walk. Write relevant observations down. Leave your analysis for later. By capturing a broad overview, you may be able to use problem-solving tools such as PDCA.

6. An extra pair of eyes

It may be a good idea to invite people from another department to accompany you. This may allow for a fresh perspective since they may ask a different set of questions.

7. Follow-up

Even if you don’t find anything significant during your Walk, you need to share what you learned or observed with the team and area supervisor. If you don’t, the team may feel you were only watching or spying on them. If you are going to make changes after the Walk, let the team know what they are and why they are needed.

3 benefits of Gemba

Gemba is a powerful, yet simple tool for learning about what is really going on in your processes. Here are a few of the benefits of Gemba.

1. Spotting problems

Observing in real time, and on site where the work is being done, makes it easier to see problems and root causes versus sitting in an office scouring spreadsheets and reports.

2. Better decision-making 

Having first-hand knowledge from personal observation and interaction with people doing the work, provides better context for you to make decisions.

3. Direct input 

Being in the actual workplace, you will be able to solicit direct feedback and input from the people actually doing the work.

Why is Gemba important to understand?

Gemba serves some very important purposes. You will be able to utilize Gemba more effectively if you understand those purposes.

Leadership engagement

The in-person observation of a Gemba Walk allows leaders to see the difference between what they think is happening and what is really happening. It provides an opportunity to interact and engage with the people doing the work and see exactly what they are doing, as opposed to sitting in an office and trying to visualize what is happening.

Employee buy-in

A key element of a Gemba Walk is to get input from people on what is going right and what is going wrong in their work area. By addressing their concerns, you will create greater buy-in. By pointing out what’s in it for them, they will understand the benefit to the organization as well as their own.

It’s about learning

The Gemba Walk is not designed to find fault and punish people. It is about observing and learning the reality of the process and the work being done. This is an important consideration if you want people to be open and honest when you observe their workplace

An industry example of Gemba

The plant manager of a large beverage concentrate facility did a scheduled Gemba Walk three days a week. She would alternate weekly between the first and second shift. She would ask two departmental managers to accompany her on each Walk.

Her process was to visit a location in the plant at the beginning of a shift. The supervisor would meet her there along with employees either ending or starting the shift. Someone from the team would review the team’s Visual Management Board and bring up any problems, solutions, or recommendations. She and the other managers would take notes and ask questions as appropriate.

She would then move on to the next operation. Then she would circle back to each area she had visited to just observe and interact with individual employees as needed. The operators thought it was great and trusted her sufficiently to bring up issues which they were afraid of before she started the Walks. This resulted in numerous instances where problems were quickly identified and solved and ideas for improvement flowed back and forth.

3 best practices when thinking about Gemba

Gemba, and particularly a Gemba Walk, should be a planned event, not a random one.

1. Be consistent

Try to have a consistent schedule for your Gemba Walks so if there are issues, people know approximately where and when you will be in their work area.

2. Don’t rush

Don’t rush through the workplace. Take your time to observe what is going on and engage with the people doing the work. Show you are really interested, and not just doing it to check off a box.

3. Don’t make recommendations or improvement suggestions

This is the time to observe and learn. Don’t use it to punish or criticize people or to make recommendations for improvement.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Gemba

What does the word Gemba mean?

Gemba or Genba is a Japanese word which translates to the real place.

What is a Gemba Walk?

The Gemba walk is part of the Lean management philosophy and is based on the Toyota Production System. The purpose of a Gemba Walk is to allow organizational leadership to go where the work is being done so they can observe the actual work process, interact with employees doing the work, learn about the work process, and explore opportunities for continuous improvement.

What are the key steps of a Gemba Walk?

  • Team preparation
  • Plan your walk
  • Follow the Value Stream
  • Focus on the process, not on the people
  • Document what you see and hear
  • Ask questions of those doing the work
  • Don’t make suggestions or attempt to make changes during the walk
  • Do this as a team

Quick review of Gemba

Performing Gemba Walks on a regular basis can offer some significant advantages like:

  • Building a trusted relationship between your management and the people doing the work
  • Identifying problems and opportunities for continuous improvement
  • Better management decision making

Keep in mind the key elements of Gemba:

Go and see

The main purpose of the Gemba Walk is for managers to regularly go to Gemba to look for waste and opportunities for improvement.

Ask why

A Walk’s main objective is to observe the value stream in detail and locate and identify potential opportunities. Consider using the 5 whys to help identify potential problem areas in the process.

Respect people

Pointing fingers and blaming people is not the purpose of a Walk. You are not there to judge and review results. You are there to engage, interact with the team and listen. Try to focus on finding problems with the process, not with the people.

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