How to Do a Gemba Walk

By Bonita Matushewski, BJMA CEO and Lean Six Sigma Black Belt

Near the beginning of any Lean project you always do a Gemba walk. Gemba is a Japanese word meaning the place of truth. A Gemba walk in Lean practice means walking to where the work gets done. Even if you work in the area of the walk, you still should go ahead, because the Gemba walk will uncover new perspectives on what happens there.

Before you take the Gemba walk, make sure you inform the people who work at the planned site that you and your team are coming. They should know in advance, and through several means: have a poster that explains briefly what you are doing, in a light tone, with a team picture; you can send an email; you can also ask a project sponsor to let them know.

What should you expect to learn?

First, you want to understand the processes a little bit, just at a high level, so that you can start to see the waste in those processes. You want to get that waste bubbling up to the surface, so that it is visible and understandable. Second, the Gemba walk is also a chance to talk to all the staff about what is working well, and how they do their jobs. It is not about trying to fix or improve anything at this point, but rather a matter of listening.

To recap: when you go on the Gemba walk, talk to all staff in the area, look for the waste, and understand how the process is working.

The other thing that a Gemba walk does is introduce change into the environment, simply because of the conversations you have about how the work gets done. People understand, from your presence and interactions, that change is coming. In addition, you get a chance to explain to people what you are doing and why. As a result of these conversations, you will get a sense of who is open to change, who might be resistant, and where possible roadblocks might be located. You also begin the crucial process of engagement with front line workers.

While you are on the walk, you are doing a change readiness assessment in your mind. (We will post in the future regarding readiness assessments.)

For example, I did a Gemba walk in a facility recently and the manager came with us, which I welcomed. As I talked to staff about doing a project in their area, I asked them how they did their work, and what kind of frustrations they had in carrying it out. The staff we spoke to all said everything was fine, and everything was working pretty well. I recognized the dynamic. There are two likely reasons for it, both embedded in the organization’s culture: 1) the employees have been there so long they cannot visualize what change would look like; or 2) employees are intimidated by the presence of their manager, and once he leaves, they will start to open up.

In the case I mentioned, the manager was called away after employees told me that everything was fine. The minute the manager left, they started to tell me about all kinds of issues. Therefore, when you are implementing change in a work place, you need to know what the relationship is like between managers and front line staff, since otherwise you will not learn about the existing issues. You also need to register willingness to change, which is the readiness assessment that you do initially as a mental inventory.

Some processes are highly visual, for example in manufacturing, and hence they are usually easier to observe. Other processes are more administrative, where people work in systems of some kind, usually digital. You need them to show you the system that they work in, whether it is a database, an email system, or something else. Get them to show you each step in the process—after making a database entry, what comes next, and what comes after that?

Engagement between workers and the change project will begin with these encounters. By listening carefully to them, you are sowing the seeds of empowerment, helping to ensure meaningful and ultimately sustainable change.

Careful listening will yield other benefits. If you are not familiar with the area it helps you to find your team members, and who would be well-suited to different roles on the team. You want to have the person who is more reluctant or skeptical, and you also want the change zealot: the person who is excited and enthusiastic about change.

You will also learn about the organization’s culture when you do a Gemba walk. Recently we did a Gemba walk through a food processing facility. Because the plant floor was noisy and crowded, it was difficult to interact and converse on the line, and even in adjacent offices. So to supplement our walk, we conducted a series of interviews with frontline workers and managers all involved in the process.

The interviews revealed something that we would not have turned up with only a tour through the plant floor and its immediate environs: there were really several different cultures within the organization, and they were not all in harmony. The plant managers were detail-driven, hard-charging people. They told us moving stories about how they had worked their way up in the company from minimum wage positions to management ones. They put great emphasis on how employees viewed themselves as a kind of family, and how this self-concept showed the unique dedication and spirit of the company. They also said they were ready and eager to make changes. The managers said that they were putting in large amounts of overtime, time often related to putting out fires of different kinds, such as equipment breakdowns. The frontline workers we spoke to nearly all used the language about the employees as a family.

For many people the “family” language would seem impressive, but the reality here made us skeptical. The chance that everyone feels part of a company family is small in an organization that does not have formal strategic, tactical and operational plans in place. We were concerned about the heavy overtime burden on the managers, but now had to understand the culture in a deeper way.

By the afternoon we spoke to managers who did not buy into the family concept, and instead worried that those managers who put in a lot of overtime set an example that was just not tenable for everyone. Whether because of young children, working spouses, or other constraints, not all these folks could be on the job more than 40 hours per week. However, they felt that the organization’s culture put pressure to conform on those who did not put in the big hours.

The other issue that emerged from these interviews came from another manager. He told us that many of the entry level workers on the line were recent immigrants who, because of language and cultural differences, did not understand how they could be promoted up the chain. Not only did they not feel part of a “family,” they did not understand the union and HR rules well enough to succeed in the company.

In summary, then, a Gemba walk should allow you as a Lean practitioner to:

  • Understand processes
  • Uncover waste
  • Engage of front line workers in change efforts
  • Identify of those who could join a project team
  • Discover issues in the organization’s culture that may help/hinder a Lean transformation