Gemba is a Japanese word that means "actual place". The Toyota executive Taiichi Ohno created the idea of the Gemba walk (Ohno, 1988) - a pilgrimage to the place where the work happens - to help his employees identify areas of improvement and eliminate wasteful activities in their workplaces. The concept was later popularized by the Lean community, and in today's business setting, it has come to mean going to the place of value for customers.

For those already familiar with the concept, saying the phrase "going to Gemba" can often conjure images of senior leadership marching around a given workplace, looking at performance boards, and nodding judiciously at what they see. This is a popular interpretation of a Gemba walk; however, examining performance solely from metrics lacks the interaction necessary to truly understand a process and its performers. To successfully go to Gemba, you must start with the people, and then observe the process and its performance. Twenty-first century companies can do better by employing the Gemba walk for more than just a quick peek at the metrics. In fact, if done correctly, the benefits of Gemba concepts can fuel both process improvement and help to create new change agents from those who perform the process every day.

The principles of Gemba are simple – go see, ask why, and show respect. Alas, it is in these principles that many Gemba walks fall short. While data is very important to understanding the general performance of a process, there are many nuances that can be missed when a process isn't observed firsthand. This can sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable for senior leaders. These managers may not be familiar with the inner workings of a detailed process, but feel that they should know how it works.

Management should face these opportunities not with fear or discomfort, but with enthusiasm for having a chance to better understand how their business operates. These managers should start with a value stream map, to get an understanding of the process.

Go See. Visualizing the work facilitates the streamlining of a process

If the manager doesn't understand the process from the value stream map, they shouldn't be ashamed to ask questions of their team for clarification. Process performers are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and from a change perspective, they also are the people who will ultimately accept and implement a change that comes.

Ask Why. Get out there and meet with the people who do this work.

Meeting with these individuals during a Gemba walk gives a manager not only a chance to learn more about the process from an expert who executes that process regularly, but also an opportunity to build rapport and begin change management at a key time in the change process — before the change is made. During these meetings, observing the behaviors and mannerisms of process performers can help indicate the change tolerance of that person, the realm of influence that person has over other team members, and their willingness to be a champion for the new initiative. Showing a bit of the human side really helps here. Ask questions – a lot of questions – and feel confident in asking ‘'why?''.

Show Respect. Managers should not fear appearing less knowledgeable than their SMEs.

There is a bit of vulnerability in being truly respectful of a person and the job they do, and that should show. Engage the ‘hearts and minds' of those that do this work. Let workers know their importance to the success of the business, and listen to what they have to say. This seems obvious, but many pain points in a process can be identified just by listening to those who work in or with the process on a daily basis. If there are pain points, look for the root cause, and do a deeper dive to get to it if needed.

Gemba supports the modern business philosophy of continuous improvement. It encourages and empowers business leaders and employees to work together to recognize the inefficiencies and gaps in a process and make the necessary changes to streamline that process. Once those gaps and inefficiencies are discovered, it's important from a change perspective to get agreement on the problem before working as a team toward creating a solution. This will ensure that as the team works together, they do so cohesively, with the same goal in mind.

In summary, a successful Gemba walk has three main principles:

Go to the real place.

· Not just the place where the metrics are kept, go instead to the place where the work is performed.

· Talk to people about what they do and then watch the work get done.

· There is no substitution for actually seeing a process performed.

Ask questions.

· Channel your inner toddler – ask why, then ask why some more.

Through child-like curiosity we can get to a deeper level of understanding of a process and its performance.

· Look for root causes – don't settle for a superficial fix.

· Don't overlook the importance of showing genuine interest. This is part of building the relationships necessary for successful change management.

Show respect.

· Respect the abilities and efforts of those who perform the work, and have sincere gratitude for these things.

· Celebrate achievements and successes.

· Listen to complaints or suggestions, especially when it comes to how the process works, these kinds of comments can give insight into gaps or inefficiencies in the process.

Going to Gemba is an important element of gaining process understanding and building rapport with those who execute the process. If utilized as it was intended, a successful Gemba walk can be a springboard to successful process improvement and change management.

References

  1. Ohno, T., Bodek, N. (1988). The Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production. Productivity Press