What is a Gemba Walk?

Gemba Walk

Gemba, 現場 means an “Actual place” in Japanese. Lean, as a methodology, way of working and manufacturing practice, utilizes Gemba walks to drive strategic objectives. Unlike typical models of western management, where leaders are removed from the workers in their ivory offices, Lean encourages managers to go on a Gemba walk to observe, learn and to help. But what does one do on a Gemba walk, and how can Kanban practitioners benefit from this amazing tool, besides getting some physical exercise?

What to do on a Gemba walk?

There are a few different things to do on a Gemba walk, but the crucial thing is for people to actually go to the place where work happens and observe. Kanban is based on visual techniques - a picture is worth a 1000 words, and management will get a far better grasp on things, if they see them for themselves.

Walk with the correct attitude

An important thing not to do is to go and judge or check up on workers. Gemba walk is not an excuse to spy on workers who are sleeping on the job, although that is a no-no. A leader on a Gemba walk would ask themselves why are workers sleeping on the job, are they overworked, or have they no assignments? The Gemba walk should give you further insight into what you’ve already been seeing on your Kanban board. If there are bottlenecks on your board, you should also see them in practice.

Observe the facts

The Gemba walk is rooted in facts. What is happening at the place of work? How many workers are overloaded and how many are standing idle? For example, in a timber factory, a leader on a Gemba walk could observe the following facts:

  • Workers are hauling large pieces of timber from one side of the factory to the other.
  • Workers processing the inventory often stand idle waiting for the delivery workers to cross the floor with inventory.
  • Workers spend about a third of their time searching for wood cutting tools that are scattered at different stations all across the factory floor.

Ask why things are happening

Having made these very casual observations, the manager could then ask the workers why this occurs. Workers might explain that the delivery of timber is dropped off at the entrance to the factory, because there is no access to the rear of the factory. The foreman on the floor could explain that the heavy wood cutting tools need the heavy-duty power sockets, that are located only at the rear of the factory.

The manager could then measure the time it takes for workers to cross the floor and decide, that by implementing high power sockets at the entrance of the factory, they will save 3 hours each day. By implementing this change, the manager would improve throughput, and reduce waste - the unnecessary workers’ energy. Within a week from this change, the manager would see that the cycle time on his Kanban board has decreased, as the process is executed much quicker, and safer too.

There is no silver-bullet right way of going on a Gemba walk, but here are some pointers you can look out for:

  • Is work carried out in a standardized fashion, or are people just picking up random tasks?
  • How clean is the work environment, how free of clutter is it, and how often are workers bumping into items? This is true of virtual environments as well - do employees have to wade through a lot of irrelevant information to find the item they are looking for?
  • Is the work environment safe, or are there any potentially dangerous accidents waiting to happen?
  • Is there a lot of motion happening without much results produced? Look out for unnecessary travelling, walking, meetings.
  • Talk to workers, be interested. Why do they do what they do, what are some of the problems they experience?
  • Is there a lot of idle time in the process? Are workers simply waiting for things to happen a lot?
  • Are workers waiting on machines or are machines waiting for workers? While the latter is acceptable, the former never should be.
  • Are designated areas clearly marked, is access to information readily available for workers to draw from for help?

Whatever you do, do not send your subordinate to go and observe for you. You, as the leader, should be there at the coalface, where your product is being made, looking at what’s actually happening. You will probably save a lot of money through the improvements it will help you bring, you might get to know your team a little, and you’ll enjoy some exercise as well. Happy walking!