Gemba Walk

Gemba Walk Takes You To The Scene!

Gemba Walk by the Manager

The concept of ‘Gemba Walk’ is derived from the Japanese word ‘genba’, which means ‘the actual place’. It has better relevance in journalism, because most journalists have to report directly from the event scene or the crime scene, therefore by expressing it ‘I am reporting from the genba...’ (the actual place). 

For the business world, the root word got changed from ‘genba’ to ‘gemba’. The Quality practitioners adopted the concept fast to apply it in the business domains.

It is normally understood that Glen Mazur, a Quality practitioner introduced the term ‘Gemba Walk’ while planning for the QFD (Quality Function Deployment).

In addition, the term got further popularized in Toyota, where Taiichi Ohno, one senior executive embraced the idea of ‘Gemba Walk’ and encouraged to use it often within the company.

What Gemba Walk Means for Business

Gemba Walk simply means that the manager actually moves out of his or her office and visits the area of work and interacts with the staff casually or informally and starts asking questions about ‘how the things are going’, about any impending issues, any problems and updates to share. This way, the staff feels more comfortable to share and express out, instead of being called in the office. In addition, the manager can also see the things first-hand with his or her eyes and can observe all the surroundings which he or she never could have observed while sitting in the office.

‘Gemba Walks’ proved to be very effective in many ways. It breaks the bureaucratic hierarchy and encourages the managers to move out and walk around the place where actual things are happening.

It starts spreading a very comfortable and easy-going environment by the accessible management. The staff starts expressing more and sharing more. And this way, the problems and bottlenecks are detected quickly and are fixed quickly as well.

The Other Part of the Gemba Walk

Planning for Gemba Walk

Now as you start the habit of Gemba Walk within your company, it is also important to understand how the process should work. 

Gemba Walk will only work when there will be some advance planning and proper method behind it. It is not like just going around and chatting. That certainly is not Gemba Walk. 

Gemba Walk has some objectives behind it, probably some covert and some overt objectives.

The manager should first have a disciplined habit of visiting the respective ‘gembas’ in the company, It may be department wise (accounts, marketing, operations, HR, Admin) or the various factory floors and specific manufacturing areas.

Somewhat Less Techy

Another interesting thing about Gemba Walk is that it is less technical and is mostly based on common sense approach. It does not require any advance statistical knowledge and tools to conduct such walks like in Six Sigma.

However, in case you come up with some chronic problematic issue, then in order to fix later, you may take the help of some advance science like Six Sigma, Business Process Improvement or Business Process Re-engineering (BPR). But that will depend from case to case basis. Generally, it is a people-oriented method, that may require more of people skills than the hard core technical skills.

Gemba Walk and MBWA

In modern management another similar concept is the MBWA (Management by Walking Around). It is also based on the same premise that manager should visit the work places often to get the first hand feedback from the staff and should see it with their own eyes. But I consider Gemba Walk having a  better philosophy with coherent structure and clear focus. 

How Gemba Walk Works

For ease and convenience of understanding, I will divide the implementation of Gemba Walk into three parts i.e. pre Gemba Walk planning, during the Gemba Walk, and the post Gemba Walk plan.

The Pre Gamba Walk Planning

Pre Planning for Gemba Walk

Before starting the Gemba walk, the manager is supposed to know and plan the following:

  • Plan the day’s schedule well in advance which area the manager has to visit.
  • The manager should have a clear advance understanding about the staff working in that area, and their previous performance levels. 
  • The manager should have the insight about the past or existing issues at the department (if any). 
  • Having the knowledge about the overall company’s position viz-a-viz that particular department. 
  • Having knowledge about the revenues, profits and losses, the company is facing due to that department or area. 
  • Having knowledge about the customers’ satisfaction levels with the company, and how much any particular department is contributing toward achieving better customer satisfaction or dissatisfaction?
  • The manager should also plan what he or she intends to ask and clarify and observe at the scene. (broader view)
  • The idea behind the pre planning for Gemba Walk is not to have blank mind resulting in spontaneous chatting only. 
  • The manager or any management executive is supposed to have a proper mental notes in his or her mind before the areas or those selected sites/scenes are visited.
  • At the same time, it is not preferred to take any notes with you while going on such visits. That is the reason, that Gemba Walk has some overt and covert objectives to fulfill. 
  • Overtly, the manager is supposed to maintain a normal and informal demeanor and more of having a spontaneous conversation at personal and professional level and in a very amiable and friendly manner. 
  • However, covertly, the manager is supposed to come with a thorough and organized planning about what he or she intends to achieve by interacting and observing the area of work.

During The Actual Gemba Walk

During the Gemba Walk

After having done some good planning for Gemba walk, and armed with the advance knowledge, the manager should now visit that area or department having some pre-planned mental notes in his or her mind.

  • The visit of the actual scene involves two sides i.e. involving the people and involving the work. 
  • Please note that it first starts with the people, not the work. During the Gemba Walk, the manager should first try to make the staff comfortable with the initial chit-chat and they should feel that it is not some kind of inspection, raid or sudden audit. 
  • Only when you are able to create such a conducive environment, then the staff will be able to share something productive. Otherwise, if you fail to create such an environment your main objective of the Gemba Walk will fail miserably. Therefore, it is people first, and work, the secondary.
  • During the conversation, once you change gears from personal to professional, then you should gradually and slowly start asking questions about the work. It should be combination of both, some closed-ended questions, and some open-ended questions.
  • There is rationale and psychology behind structuring such questions. 
  • It usually happens that the things which are critical and problematic, the staff may not express it out rightly. For such professional areas, you should have craft some closed-ended questions, in order to get the answers fast as well as making it easier for the staff to express out in brief, yes or no and multiple choices (MCQs) options. 
  • In addition, the area, which you think is neutral and is not much of a problem that may require more qualitative detailed feedback. That area can be asked with open-ended questions, so that the staff should be able to express it out in more detail

Now as you can see, though it appears simple, but the Gemba Walk has a method behind it, unless you follow it in its true spirit, you may not get the desired results.

Post Gemba Walk Plan

Analyzing Post Gemba Walk

Now after when you have interacted well and asked enough and observed enough, you should come back to your office, and immediately have to follow the post Gemba Walk stage. 

This is the core objective of the Gemba walk. As expressed earlier, it is not just a chit-chat session. There is a lot of work to be done after conducting the Gemba Walk, that includes the following:

  • Start noting with pen and paper or preferably in your PC all the important points, the feedback, the observations, issues and problems if any. 
  • All the notes taken during the Gemba walk has to be organized systematically. 
  • Make separate categories about what is going right, what is going wrong and what is just right.
  • This should further be boiled down, to three things; Fix it, reward it and leave it.
  • Develop an action plan with responsibilities specially to address those areas that require fixing. This is the main crux of the Gemba Walk. This is also equivalent of the continuous improvement concept given by Kaizen philosophy. 
  • Sometimes, the changes or fixes may be in form of some minor adjustments or some major modifications. e.g. staff may require some new expensive tools, or staff may require some different layout of work space etc. 
  • Alternatively, the work area may have some process problems with non-value added steps resulting in dissatisfaction of the customers. (it may be of serious matter). 
  • Such rectification will require some detailed planning and for that matter you have to use some other advance level methods like Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, BPI (Business Process Improvement) or BPR (Business Process Re-engineering) which may also include the digital process automation in order to make it more efficient for the company and effective for the customers. 
  • The problem fixing is definitely the main part derived out of the feedback from Gemba Walks. And perhaps that is what may help the company more.
  • Furthermore, there is also a need to develop a plan about how to reward the staff who are doing good work and who are performing outstandingly. 
  • Get the required approvals from the concerned management to give some kind of spot rewards whether in the form of dinner or some cash prizes.
  • This step is often overlooked, but it actually is very important to sustain the success of the Gemba Walk culture. Because this is where when the casual interaction of the management with the staff starts turning into fruitful rewards. 
  • This will boost the morale of the staff as well as it will strengthen the trust between the staff and the upper management, resulting into more productivity. And that simply means more profits for the company. (Not a bad deal at all)
  • Lastly, you need to leave those issues, that do not require any action for the time being. And in one way or the other they are doing fine. As it says. ‘don’t fix it if it is not broken’. Don’t bother much. You just have to focus on the important and the urgent matters first.

Who Should Conduct Gemba Walk

Staff discussing who should conduct Gemba Walk

Another aspect of the Gemba Walk is that everyone may not be fully fit to do it. And as you may have noticed in your companies that every manager or the senior management have their own style of doing things and interacting with the people. So the personal and professional habits may vary from person to person and company to company.

Although, many a time, the organization takes less interest to understand the human personality and their behaviors, and mostly they are busy only with the issues related to the products, services, and the customers, as well as the internal functioning. But with such busy preoccupied mental focus, most often the welfare of the staff gets ignored in one way or the other.

Now if you are interested to implement Gemba Walk successfully, it is very important to understand the type of the manager’s personality. Broadly speaking, if the manager is an introvert by nature, he or she will prefer to sit in the office and call the staff in the office, and if the manager happens to an extrovert, then he or she can easily benefit from the Gemba Walk by going out and interacting with the staff at their places.

Although, the introversion and extroversion is easily understood and is a prevalent personality understanding, however, I would suggest that if the company and its HR department can take it to the next level by adopting the more sophisticated model of MBTI personality assessment. 

According to MBTI, there are 16 Personality types. Each one is depicted with a 4-letter word code like INFP, ENFP, ISTJ, ESTJ and more. If you want to know more, you can check out my other article on MBTI personality typing here.

Those who happen to have ‘E’ in their 4-letter-code are primarily fit to do the Gemba Walk comfortably, and those who have the S, T J can further take it forward in a meticulous and organized way to address the issues and bring in required improvements. But on the other hand, if you happen to have an ‘I’ in your 4-letter-word MBTI personality type, you may possess more inward looking personality where you like to mingle with people often. Those managers who happen to have such personality types may not be suited for Gemba Walk.

The main purpose is to make the Gemba Walk successful, that is the reason that everything has to be planned meticulous and the right personality type manager should adopt such an initiative. Since as now we may understand that it involves a lot of people skills. The natural flair to talk to staff with some wit and humor is an art that may not be with everyone.

This kind of communications skills are essential to make the staff feel at ease, so that they can talk back freely and can share more things without any hiding.

Examples Where Gemba Walk Can Be Applied

Women standing in  Gemba Walk

Gemba Walk can be applied in any company, small, medium or large. It can be manufacturing or service industry. Wherever there are managers, staff and processes, you can adopt the culture of having Gemba Walks within the company. Although there may be hundreds of examples and areas where it can be applied, but I will just indicate a few ones…

One of the typical examples of the Gemba walk is the Customer Service area. This is the area, where every day there are hundreds of customers with their queries, complaints and issues, and the respective company’s Customer Service staff is usually attending their issues as per the company’s SOPs.

It makes all the good sense that the Customer Service Manager should conduct Gemba walks more often instead of calling the customer services staff to his or her office. This way, the manager can actually observe first-hand the interactions of the customers as well as the staff, and at the same time can interact with the staff in the gaps to know more about the work from them.

In manufacturing companies, I can give you an example of a denim jeans manufacturing factory, where there are several sections, from cotton inputs, yarn making, weaving the fabric, dyeing the fabric with different colors and cutting it to the specifications of the denim jeans, and then stitching it as per the sizes, and finally doing the finishing and then packaging the finished good for the dispatch to the respective destinations. Every section has its own supervisors, heads, and functional staff. 

I experienced this company first-hand, and when I used to visit the areas and ask the staff about the issues and problems, I could find one section, i.e. fabric cutting section, where there was a lot of waste, which included human errors as well as machine errors.

By interacting with the respective staff in that section during many interactions, the interesting part was that staff started coming up with their own ideas to improve the things which previously they had not. And eventually the plan was made for the management to fix the problems.

I will limit for the two above brief examples in this article just to give you the overall idea, how it can work in both manufacturing and service industries.

Gemba walk can work in many ways, it ignites the environment for discussion, ideas, innovation and sharing, instead of maintaining an uptight management. 

Gemba Walk can be arranged and planned now in any business settings whether it is manufacturing or service industry. The banks, hospitals, hotels and many more industries can take a very good advantage from it.

It starts becoming more of corporate culture when exercised regularly and with the right approach. Though it may also happen that in many companies the managers do often visit the site areas to get the first-hand feedback and to get apprised about any issues, but probably many companies may not be calling it as ‘Gemba Walk’ , though they may be doing it either with different names or perhaps with ‘no-name’.

But in one way, that is also alright. As long as the company is getting good advantage of the concept and practice, it may not matter much what name you may assign it. As it says. ‘No matter what name you give it to a rose, its fragrance remains the same’.

Summing Up

Staff holding hands and summing up Gemba Walk tours

Strategically, Gemba Walk is a part of the Quality Improvement initiative.

The main objective is to improve some functional areas, products or services by eliminating or reducing the defects and errors by actually going to the scene site and observing it first-hand and validating it from the respective staff and process owners.

Therefore, it is important first to understand that as you can see, executing Gemba Walk requires detailed planning and well-structured and organized road mad.

Those who can do it in a detailed way can certainly derive a lot of benefits but those who fail to take it seriously, these Gemba walks can easily turn into a casual chit-chat talks without any worthwhile results for the company.

Gemba walk is one of the simplest but one of the very powerful methods to achieve the end objectives to bring overall improvements for the company, which brings the mutually acceptable and all-inclusive solution by involving the respective staff and process owners.

Gemba Walk can also be considered as part of the company’s habits and more appropriately the company’s culture, in which every manager adopts such good practices, not only limited to just a few silos. Such corporate cultures with rich and productive practices can easily overtake the competitors at much faster speed than its counterparts. You also check out another article on Gemba Walks

I hope such practices should flourish more in all types of companies, small, medium and large.

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