A great lean tool that is often overlooked and sometimes misunderstood is the gemba walk.
Gemba comes from the Japanese word genba, meaning “the actual place.” In lean manufacturing, gemba refers to the place where things happen—the manufacturing floor.
However, gemba is more than a walkthrough of the manufacturing or office areas. It’s a tool that allows leaders, managers, engineers, and others to interact with operational staff to reinforce lean manufacturing culture and practices. The walk helps identify and solve issues by providing support and soliciting kaizen ideas, input, and feedback to ensure continuous improvement is happening.
As manufacturing has evolved, we sometimes see a gap between what is happening on the shop floor and what the front office thinks is happening. Gemba can help you become more efficient by providing a clearer understanding of your operations. But, where do you start?
First, go and see. Regularly walk the areas and involve yourself in identifying waste and seeing what is happening. This should be done by all levels of leadership within your company.
Next, ask why as you walk the value stream. Stop and watch what is happening. Ask people why they are doing what they are doing. The 5 whys can be used to identify waste on your gemba walk. Gemba is as much about listening as it is about seeing, asking questions, and understanding why things are happening within the value stream.
The third step of Gemba is to show respect for people. Gemba is not about pointing fingers and assigning blame. During the gemba walk, you are there to collaborate, find issues, ask questions, and bring issues to the surface so they can be improved.
To get in the habit of doing a daily gemba walk, it’s a good idea to schedule it on your work calendar. I can already hear some readers saying they don't have time. Are you sure you don’t have time for a walk that can save your company money, increase efficiency, and show your employees that you are serious about continuous improvement and driving change for the better?
Before you march out on your daily gemba walk, think about whether it makes sense to bring other leaders along, which I encourage. More people will see more things, ask more questions, and demonstrate that the company’s leadership supports a culture of continuous improvement.
Make sure everyone on the team understands the three functions of the gemba walk: go and see, ask questions, and show respect.
Now, arm yourself with some post-it notes and walk the value stream. Stop and observe, asking questions and writing comments along the way.
Remember, this is not the time to place blame or spend hours solving all the issues. This is the time to identify waste, ask people in the area why things are done a certain way, and solicit ideas from them. Listening is critical.
Once you complete your walk, post the notes so they can be seen by everyone. This will encourage additional ideas and involvement and establish accountability.
Next, select issues you want to improve and start a formal improvement event. To do this, assign a team to the issues and ask them to perform a kaizen event.
You will see that some issues are quickly resolved and others might take weeks or longer. Leave them on the board and update the status as teams work on them. If an issue is improved, remove it from the board. This is also a good time to celebrate a success. Consider having a 5-minute gathering in the area that was improved—maybe have some pizza. Make it known that something good happened. This will spark more ideas and generate momentum for everyone to get involved.
On your next gemba walk, go through the area where you identified issues and update employees on what is currently being done about it. It is difficult to gain buy-in or drive support when employees don’t hear anything about issues that were identified. You want everyone to help improve the company, so make them part of the problem-solving process, opportunities, and solutions, and keep them updated.
The benefits of a gemba walk:
Tips for your gemba walk
You cannot walk large manufacturing buildings all day long, so break the gemba walk up into smaller value streams and assign different teams to each walk. You can have one team member report daily what they found to the leadership team.
Perform the walk every day at the same time and don’t let people skip out unless there is a good reason.
When identifying issues and placing the post-it notes on the visual board, spell out the goal of what should be achieved. For example, you could write "Remove the extra motion of having to travel eight steps to retrieve a needed part to assemble the widget in work cell A12." Just jotting down "Reduce waste in cell A12" is not a clear goal.
A real world gemba example
On our daily gemba walk, one of my team’s supervisors noticed that an employee had to walk behind a machine for a few moments and then return to his workstation. We watched him do this a few times and then asked why he was walking behind his machine. At first, he looked at us in a bewildered way. With some additional encouragement, he answered, "I have an older machine and the release valve for the coolant overflow isn’t always working. It can cause coolant to spill on the floor and then I must clean up to prevent tripping, slipping, and a messy work area.”
We asked the employee if he wanted to be part of a team tasked with resolving the potential of a spill. He agreed.
The note on the board stated "Machine #26—eliminate potential for coolant overflow and spill." The team discussed potential solutions and reviewed the newer machines to see what could be done to the older machine to eliminate the need for the operator to check the back of the machine.
The solution was rather simple. After seeing that the newer machines have a larger tank and a different float system, a maintenance technician and the operator found a used replacement tank and new float system for sale. They bought and installed the parts and upgraded the old machine to have the new tank style, eliminating the issues.
The change cost about $2,700 in parts and labor. It demonstrated to employees that management is willing to fix issues that have been accepted and lived with. In addition, the employee himself was empowered and helped solve the issue. His attitude improved as well as his commitment to help solve issues throughout the area and company. He asked to be part of many gemba improvement teams.
I cannot give you an exact dollar amount we saved, but seeing that employee and others become involved in improvement teams was more than enough cost justification for me. Later, the same employee collaborated with a maintenance technician on an idea to add automated coolant refill to all machines. This saved many steps for operators, reduced the demand on maintenance personnel to assist with coolant replenishment, and eliminated the potential for spills and overfills when adding coolant to machines. This change, which can be linked to the gemba walk, brought real savings. The direct and automated coolant system had an ROI of 18 months. Removing this waste helped encourage others to become part of the lean culture and continued improvement within the company.
In summary, the gemba walk is a great tool to ensure management is connected to the real issues in the company and isn't trying to solve issues from a chair. The gemba walk can help increase visibility of continuous improvement and lean, get buy-in from employees, and make daily progress on improvements and waste removal from the value stream.