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Gemba Walks for Executive Leadership – Why They Are So Important

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gemba walks

Gemba Walks are an increasingly popular management practice in modern workplaces. They support continuous improvement, operational excellence, and are a vital tool for leaders in all settings. Although traditionally associated with production and manufacturing, these types of walks are useful in offices, workshops, and even educational establishments. From automotive to food and beverage, getting leaders to spend time on the shop floor enables them to get a real feel for what’s going on, the challenges being faced, and opportunities available. This kind of observation creates a leadership team that’s more in touch with the day-to-day workings of a company. It’s one of the reasons that Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, requires managers to work a stint in customer service. In this article, we explore why Gemba Walks are so important to the long-term success of a company and how you can get the most out of yours.


The Power of Gemba Walks

Walking the Gemba refers to visiting the place where the work is done. It’s a practice that encourages managers to get out of their office and spend time in the workplace with front line employees. The concept was first developed by Toyota as part of their revolutionary production system. It’s now been expanded and built upon by Kaizen and Lean Six Sigma organizations around the world. Following the practice on a consistent basis has been shown to have powerful benefits for organizations;


  •         Gain insights – leaders can gain valuable insights from spending time on the shop or factory floor.
  •         Identify value creation – it enables them to see firsthand how and where value is created for customers.
  •         Uncover improvement areas – it allows them to uncover opportunities for improvement through lean practices or waste reduction.
  •         Provide staff support – these walks help managers to learn new or different ways of supporting their employees.
  •         Fosters collaboration – facilitates a collaborative approach where team members provide input on processes and improvement ideas, as well as managers.  


Gemba Walks get to the heart of one of the biggest challenges for modern leaders – how to stay in touch with what’s really going on. It’s common for managers to become detached from their departmental operations when inundated with admin, reports, and an overflowing inbox. Some seek refuge in their office in an effort to simply get things done. But this can mean that they lose sight of what’s happening on the front line which may negatively impact how they make decisions.

During complex projects, it’s easy to get bogged down in the theoretical aspects of process improvement. With so many details to consider, it sometimes turns into a philosophical discussion with people losing sight of what’s really important. Getting lost in data and reports during meetings is a sure-fire way to slow progress and undermine the success of a project. This was why Toyota developed the Gemba Walk as a way of staying grounded and in touch with ‘the real place’. It allows leaders to see and learn about what is actually happening as opposed to what they assume is happening.



What Does It Involve?

Gemba Walks involve visiting the frontline workplace, watching how a process is done, and talking with the people who do it. It’s about learning from and interacting with the staff who create value and are closest to the work. When leaders listen to employees and then take action on their feedback, a culture of cooperation is created. Staff see that their opinions and ideas are both valued and acted upon. This makes it an excellent practice for supporting employee engagement as well as continuous improvement efforts.

However, it’s also important to recognize that Gemba Walks work best when they are used for their true purpose. They aren’t an opportunity to find fault with the way employees are working since this will create fear among the team. The walks aren’t the place to implement quick fixes on the spot either – the point is to take the feedback on board and then consider how to resolve an issue. It’s crucial not to disregard any feedback either since eliciting input is the main goal of the walk. By observing ‘the place where value is created’ leaders can support continued excellence and smooth operation of a plant or facility.


How To Conduct an Effective Gemba Walk

Conducting a successful Gemba Walk is about planning, execution, and following up afterwards. It’s not just about what you do during the walk – it’s about how you prepare in advance and then take action afterward. Let’s look at some ways to get the most out of your walk and make it as effective as possible.


1 – Begin with the End in Mind

Start by identifying what it is that you want to get out of your walks. What’s the goal? The practice isn’t the same as management by walking and it isn’t simply about wandering around and chatting to employees – it’s more methodical than that. Your walk should have a purpose so that you can ask the right questions throughout it. If you don’t know what you’re trying to get out of it, then it’ll be harder to stay focused.


2 – Inform the Team

Gemba Walks are a collaborative process so it’s important to inform the team and get their buy-in. If a manager suddenly starts walking around and asking questions out of the blue, then they may become suspicious. But if they’ve been told about it in advance and understand why it’s happening, then they’ll be more likely to get involved. Explain to them how it will work and why it will be useful, both to them and to the company. Help them to understand that the goal is to make operations run more smoothly so that their job becomes easier. It’s not about checking up on them, it’s an opportunity to provide feedback and ideas. Ultimately, their input can improve quality and safety which is beneficial for everyone.


3 – Track the Value Stream

Understanding the value chain is a crucial part of lean management. By identifying what contributes value to the end customer and where wastage occurs, you can improve efficiency and make operations even leaner. Many companies find that the more impactful improvement opportunities are found where there are handovers in the stream. This might be between different processes, people, or departments. By aligning your walks with the value stream, you can focus your observations on those areas with the highest likelihood of issues (and therefore biggest opportunities for improvement).


It’s also worth asking employees to make recommendations for your Gemba Walks. Are there any shifts, processes, or areas that they think could benefit? You’ll often get the best ideas from people who are closest to the work and have the most in-depth understanding of how things operate. This approach also makes the practice more collaborative since they are having input from the start.


4 – Come with Questions

Coming to the Gemba with questions will help you to uncover why things operate in the way that they do. It can be easy to fall into the trap of making assumptions and believe that everything is begin done to the official leader standard. But it’s more effective to ask questions and use it as a learning opportunity. Dig beyond the surface to understand how and when deviations occur from leader standard work. How are exceptions managed? Why are things done in a particular order? What do they think is the root cause of an issue? When asking questions, it can be helpful to use the 5W framework as a starting point or Gemba Walk checklist;


  • Who – who is involved, provides input, or is the end customer for each part of the process?
  • What – what are the inputs, outputs, and barriers that hold a process back or create waste?
  • Where – is the location set up optimally and are there any motion waste activities apparent?
  • When – is everything available when needed or are there delays inhibiting the pull process?
  • Why – why does this create value for the customer?


By asking these questions, you’ll find it easier to identify improvement opportunities and create a lean working environment.


5 – Prioritize Processes

The goal of these walks is to understand processes and identify continuous improvement opportunities. It’s not about evaluating employees and they should never be made to feel under the spotlight. Be upfront about your reason for being there and make it clear that your focus is on the processes. They need to know that you’re seeking to understand and not find fault. By being open about this from the start, you’re much more likely to receive honest answers from those involved. So, keep your questions focused on the processes as much as possible.


6 – Record What You Observe

There’s a lot to take in during a Gemba Walk so it’s vital to record what you observe. Document what you see so that you can easily remember it later. You can do this via your phone or tablet using a continuous improvement software app like Rever’s. This way you don’t need to transfer them from handwritten notes to a computer or between different project management programs. You can even capture photos and submit them directly into the platform so there’s no need for hand-drawn diagrams or sketches.


7 – Update Employees Afterwards

Following up with employees shows that you listened and acted upon their feedback. Some changes are more obvious than others so they may not always know what’s become of their idea. It can take time for improvement projects to be implemented so without an update, they may assume that they’ve been ignored or forgotten. Take the time to share what you learned from your Gemba Walk and the next steps that will happen as a result.


8 – Repeat Your Walks At Varied Times

Gemba Walks should be repeated on a regular basis. Rather than thinking of them as a one-off activity to get done, you’ll get the best results when you conduct them on a regular basis. By going back, you’ll build up stronger relationships with employees over time which will enable you to gain better and more open feedback from them. You’ll be able to see whether improvement efforts have made a difference and whether the desired outcomes are occurring. If you feel like you’re too busy to do this on a regular basis, then remember that these walks will actually save you time in the long run. Time at the Gemba will remove problems from operations so that things run more smoothly and you don’t have bigger emergency issues to deal with.


It’s also worth varying the times of your walks and mixing up your schedule. It might be tempting to set a reoccurring calendar appointment for the same time and day but this will only give you one view of the frontline. By visiting it at other times or days of the week, you may see different activities happening or interact with new people who’ll have additional feedback. This can expand your thinking and make your walks even more productive.


Achieving Lean Transformation

Working towards lean manufacturing goals doesn’t have to be a complicated process or involve lots of foreign-sounding buzzwords. It doesn’t really matter if you know your Hoshin Kanri from your Kanban. What matters is that you engage with the frontline employees regularly and use the walks as an opportunity to learn and improve. This approach can help you with every aspect of the improvement process, from root cause analysis to Kaizen event implementation. It aids quality management, workplace safety, and employee engagement. So, whether you work in operations, marketing, or product development, why not walk the floor and see what you can learn from the front line.


Your Digital Continuous Improvement Tool

Rever is all about sharing and reusing, doing and tracking. Continuous improvement becomes a hundred times easier with our innovative digital platform. Using Rever’s dashboard, you can monitor the performance of your teams, the summary of their impact, and easily identify the people making the biggest difference at your company.


Rever Cycle is our version of the PDCA methodology and guides your teams on the exact steps to follow to execute their own ideas. It allows them to capture the entire process, from identifying a problem to experimenting and implementing a solution. They can use it to capture the before and after with pictures, notes and drawings, making their ideas a reality in no time. The time of your team is too valuable to be wasted in handmade drawings and complex explanations. 


At Rever, we believe that anybody can be a knowledge worker and thrive. What makes us human is the capacity to grow our intellect and will, and to use them for good. We observe, especially at work, that most people are asked to stop thinking and do as they are told. We want to change that. We enable people to achieve their full creative potential.


Are you interested in learning more about developing a continuous improvement culture or discussing case studies? Then get a demo today with one of our friendly Kaizen improvement experts.

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