A gemba walk is a leadership process in which a manager walks through his or her areas of responsibility in order to gain a better understanding of how the operation is running. The term “gemba” means “the real place” in Japanese. The level of structure of a gemba walk varies by the individual. They range from a simple walkthrough on up to a formal checklist containing specific things to look for.
Gemba walks should be a regular, recurring part of a leader’s personal standard work.
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The term “go to gemba” is closely related to gemba walks, in that both require that a leader sees the real operation with his or her own eyes. But there is a big difference between the two. Gemba walks are intended to broaden overall understanding of a process. “Go to gemba” is most often heard when there is a discussion brewing about a process. Rather than simply guess about a process, people should go down to the place where the process is occurring and see the work with one’s own eyes. So, “going to gemba” is done with a specific end in mind.
I generally recommend a least two gemba walks per day for a manager. The first should be done at the beginning of a day to see if there are any problems that jump out. It is hard to recognize abnormal conditions if a leader is not familiar with normal. For example, if you manage a call center, you might notice that call volume seems lower than normal, perhaps because one of the incoming phone numbers was not working. If you were not used to the normal frequency of rings, you would never notice the problem.
The second gemba walk should be at a random time. First of all, it keeps people from prepping up just for the boss’s 2:30 visit. Second, it lets the manager see the operation in a variety of different operating conditions, which increases the chance of noticing problems.
Gemba Walk Process
Again, the degree of formality varies, but avoid just making a gemba walk a meet and greet with the team. Be social, but remember, the primary purpose is to learn more about the process.
Have an agenda. Know what areas you want to focus on before going into a work area. There will likely be a lot to see as you refine your powers of observation.
Use a checklist. It is easy to get distracted when you dive into a process. Include a safety scan, morale checks, 5S screening, a once-over on inventory, and maintenance checks on tools.
Avoid making it a disciplinary walk-through. You’ll see some people problems to fix, but deal with those issues independently of the gemba walk. Make this ritual a positive experience for team members so they open up to you.
Bring paper and pen. Write down findings. Make sketches of what you see. Even if you are a poor artist, you’ll probably get more information packed into a picture than you can by writing paragraphs.
Act on findings. Some should be dealt with on the spot. Others should be tracked and monitored to provide the basis for an improvement project.
Put your walks on the calendar. Don’t treat them as optional, and do them just when you have time. If you are like most managers, you only have time for the things that you make a priority.