For years, those of us in operations have heard of or used the term “Gemba.” In fact, we often use the term quite loosely not realizing the Gemba is not just where the work is done, but where value-added work is done. A key understanding is how a well-executed Gemba Walk can help improve flow and value to the organization.
Let’ go a step further. If the Gemba is where the value-added work is done, what is the rest of the organization doing? Think about it, in many organizations, the support teams (Senior Leadership, HR, IT, Engineering, Planning, Marketing, Sales, etc.) make up 30% - 50% of the workforce. Are they important? Of course, they are. Without them the organization could not function as well or express a value proposition for its customers. But at the end of the day most, if not all, of the value-added work takes place in the Gemba. As I noted earlier the support teams are critically important. They are there to support those working in the Gemba, ensuring a safe work environment and creating systems to make the work easier and more productive. They also help the team identify obstacles, problem-solve, implement countermeasures, and improve flow.
The objective then is to bring leadership and support teams to the location where the value-added work is done, the Gemba, and witness for themselves. Taiichi Ohno, the Father of the Toyota Production System (TPS), understood that only by going to the Gemba to observe, to learn, and understand, can obstacles be understood and problems solved. Only by going to the Gemba can leaders and experts teach.
The Gemba walk is a focused, structured process, aimed at engaging with those creating value, observing, understanding, asking open ended questions, and helping identify and solve problems. It is not an unplanned, unannounced casual walk through the operation with no specific objectives.
I remember years earlier as a plant manager, the VP of Operations would visit my plant usually unannounced, (his office was 200 miles away), and walk the plant. He would call it a Gemba Walk, but it was really a casual walk through the plant where he would point out issues and problems as he saw them. He didn’t engage with the associates on the floor, nor did he ask open ended questions; he was not there to learn. In fact, after he left, associates would ask me if there was a problem, if someone was in trouble, and should they be concerned. Soon after his visit, I would receive his normal email pointing out his observations and expectations. Sound familiar? There was no focus, no real engagement, and no learning. The further away a leader is from the value-added work, the less effective he or she will be in supporting those who do the work. How much time should a leader spend in the Gemba? A former President of Toyota is said to have spent 80% of his time in the Gemba helping to solve problems. How many times do we tell ourselves we don’t have the time? How busy are we that we don’t have the time to observe, learn, and help those creating real value to solve their problems? I didn’t say solve their problems, but help them. How busy are we that we can’t take quality time to help those is the Gemba to be successful?
So, remember you cannot be effective in helping your team to solve problems by sitting at your desk or looking at reports. Go to the Gemba with purpose, see what’s going on, get to know those on the frontlines and have meaningful conversations, so you can help them be successful.
Stay tuned for part 2, where we will discuss the bones of a great Gemba walk.
If you have questions or would like to start a conversation, please reach out to IMEC.
In the meanwhile, watch the webinar recording of WHERE WORK HAPPENS: The Power of Gemba Walks for Continuous Improvement Webinar, to learn how to conduct an effective Gemba Walk and enhance your team’s continuous improvement journey.