Gemba walk: Everything you need to know to do it right

Gemba walks are the bread and butter of effective shop floor management, so it’s vital to know how to implement them right and what to avoid when you’re in the middle of one.

Today, we’ll be covering:

What’s a Gemba walk?

Before we go deeper, let’s go back to basics. 

Gemba is a Japanese term that means ‘the actual place.’ In the context of Gemba walks, we’d be talking about the shop floor, factory, or workspace where the actual work happens.

A Gemba walk is a structured approach to process improvement. This means the manager or leader physically goes to the place where the work is done to observe, engage, and understand the current state of operations. 

It’s about getting out of the office and into the heart of the action, where you can see processes for yourself, talk to employees, and get firsthand knowledge of how everything is going. 

Gemba walks can be structured in a way that suits your shop floor, which means that your Gemba process might not work for someone else.

However, every Gemba needs to have the following key elements.

Key elements of a Gemba walk

Observation —You need to observe processes actively. This means you’ll be looking for waste, inefficiencies, and opportunities for improvement. Above all, it’s paramount you pay attention to what’s happening, how it’s happening, and why it’s happening.

Engagement — Your employees are the ones witnessing their work firsthand, so you need to engage with them and see how they’re doing. Ask questions to understand what blockers they have. Effective communication is key to building trust and identifying issues before they become a problem.

Problem-solving — Your team need to have good problem-solving skills, as you’ll be working with them to find solutions when issues or improvement opportunities come up. 

Continuous improvement —Gemba walks are crucial for any continuous improvement culture. In this type of environment, small incremental changes lead to significant improvements over time, which is what continuous improvement is all about.

Why are Gemba walks relevant for lean manufacturing?

So, now that we’ve given you some background on Gemba walks, we’ll be stating the obvious by laying out their relevance for manufacturing.

Lean manufacturing is all about reducing waste, improving efficiency, and delivering value to customers. This means Gemba walks are the perfect way to help you:

Get 360° visibility —Gemba walks give you real-time visibility into your manufacturing processes from the people working directly on them. Instead of relying on reports and data, you can see the actual state of affairs with your own eyes. This visibility is critical for informed decision-making.

Implement Root Cause Analysis effectively —By checking how operations are going on the field, you get to the root causes of problems faster. By being on the shop floor, you can dig deeper into issues and understand why they occur, so you can implement more effective solutions.

Engage your employees —When you engage with your team on the shop floor, you’re creating a sense of ownership and involvement. Employees feel valued when their input is heard, which leads to a more motivated and productive workforce.

Identify sources of waste —Lean manufacturing aims to eliminate waste in all its forms, whether it’s overproduction, waiting time, defects, or excess inventory. Gemba walks are an excellent way to spot waste and initiate corrective actions.

Implement continuous improvement —Gemba walks aren’t one-off events; they are part of a continuous improvement cycle. By consistently identifying and addressing issues, you create a culture of, well, continuous improvement.

What are the consequences of bad Gemba walk processes?

Now you know what Gemba walks are, what key elements they need, and why they’re relevant for lean manufacturing.

It’s time to see what the consequences of bad Gemba walk processes are, as sometimes it’s easier to learn from bad practices than good ones, although we’ll be covering both in this blog.

So, bad Gemba walk processes are full of:

Misalignment —If a factory doesn’t carry out Gemba walks regularly, leaders may lose touch with the reality of the shop floor. This misalignment can lead to decisions that don’t reflect the actual needs of the operation.

Wasted opportunities —Gemba walks are important to get your employees’ insights on the processes they’re working on. If this exchange doesn’t happen during Gemba walks, you’ll be missing out on valuable insights and ideas for improvement.

Quality issues —Without regular Gemba walks, you might not catch quality problems until they escalate, leading to increased defects and rework.

Stagnation —A lack of Gemba walks can lead to stagnant processes, where inefficiencies persist, and innovation is stifled.

Communication breakdown —Gemba walks serve as a direct line of communication between leadership and employees. Neglecting them can result in a breakdown of this crucial communication channel.

Tips to master your Gemba walk

Now, let’s see some tips to ensure you’re carrying out Gemba walks like a pro, avoiding the mistakes from the previous section.

Following these tips during your Gemba process is likely to lead you down the same path as our real-life examples of successful Gemba walk users. You’ve been warned!

Tips to master your Gemba Walk

 

Plan ahead —Set a schedule for your Gemba walks (yes, for all of them) and communicate it to your team. Consistency is key to making Gemba walks a habit.

Prepare questions —Make sure you have a list of open-ended questions to ask employees during your walk. These questions should encourage them to share their insights and concerns.

Listen actively —While on the shop floor, actively listen to what employees have to say. Don’t interrupt them, and try to understand the full extent of their challenges and blockers.

Take notes —Bring something to jot down observations, ideas, and issues that arise during the walk. This is great to follow up effectively.

Prioritise —Not every issue you find needs immediate action. Prioritise the most critical problems and tackle them first.

Follow up —After your Gemba walk, don’t forget to follow up on the issues you identified. Work with your team to find and implement solutions, and track progress.

Share your findings —Transparency is key. Share your observations and the actions you plan to take with your team. This fosters trust and keeps everyone informed.

Keep learning —Use each Gemba walk as an opportunity to learn and refine your approach. Ask for your team’s feedback on how to improve the process.

Real-life examples of successful Gemba Walks

To drive home the effectiveness of Gemba walks, let’s take a look at some real-life success stories from different industries:

Toyota

Toyota (pioneer of lean manufacturing) has a history of using Gemba walks to achieve operational excellence consistently. 

One of their famous practices is the 5 Whys technique, which works wonders to get to the root cause of a problem.

Thanks to implementing Gemba walks and the 5 Whys technique regularly, Toyota managed to improve their processes and keep their spotless reputation for quality.

Amazon

In the world of e-commerce, Amazon is renowned for its commitment to customer satisfaction. 

Their CEO, Jeff Bezos, is known to have performed regular Gemba walks in the company warehouses and distribution centres. 

He made a point to stay deeply involved in the operations of his company. This commitment to Gemba walks has helped Amazon continually refine their processes, boost their logistic processes, and deliver quality more efficiently.

Airbus

Now, for the aerospace industry.

When precision and safety are paramount (as they are in this industry), it’s a good idea to use Gemba walks to maintain the highest standards. 

This is exactly what Airbus does.

Engineers and managers visit the assembly lines regularly to assess the progress of aircraft production. 

By doing so, they ensure that each component is installed correctly, that safety measures are followed, and that any issues are addressed promptly. 

This commitment to Gemba walks contributes to the reliability and safety of Airbus aircrafts.

mlean & Gemba walks

We’ve seen that Gemba walks are a truly powerful tool to implement continuous improvement and boost lean manufacturing efforts, as well as achieve operational excellence.

They’re also great to build (or strengthen) the relationship between leaders and their employees, fostering a collaborative environment where employees feel valued, heard, and seen.

Here at mlean, we’re obsessed with continuous digital improvement and lean manufacturing, which is the whole reason behind the existence of mlean® Production System (mPS).

We’re particularly proud of our Shop Floor Management solutions, which include (you guessed it!) a Gemba Walk module so you can rest assured all the important information will be stored safely electronically.

This also means your employees can send you pictures and report issues instantly through our module, giving you real-time information whenever you need it, and connecting everyone from shop floor to office.

If you want to know more about this, feel free to head over to our website, or book a free demo if you’d rather see our system in action!

 

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