A Gemba Walk is an essential element of the Six Sigma and Lean Management approach. For anyone looking to improve their organization's continuous improvement culture, the Gemba Walk presents a transformative opportunity. Here's what you need to know about implementing the Gemba Walk technique and optimizing it to reap the benefits:

What is a Gemba Walk?

"Gemba" is a Japanese term that literally translates to "the real place" or “the place where value is created.” Within the Lean management philosophy, "Gemba" is the most important place for a team. It is where leaders and managers can engage with employees and observe the actual work process. As managers dive into the details of the operations sequences, they are better equipped to identify opportunities for continuous improvement. The concept of a Gemba Walk was first developed by Taiichi Ohno — a legendary process improvement leader and father of the Toyota Production System.

Why is a Gemba Walk Important for Continuous Improvement

Conducting a Gemba Walk gives leadership the opportunity to learn about fundamental work processes and engage with their employees in a more direct, personal way. This in-depth knowledge enables them to accurately determine areas for improvement and implement changes that improve efficiency. 

Regular Gemba Walks also promote a culture of mutual trust and open communication in the organization. Leaders can clearly communicate their goals and objectives, and individual employees are able to share their input and feel valued. Simply put, think of a Gemba Walk as Undercover Boss, but the leaders aren't undercover at all. If you've seen the show, you'll know that a vast majority of CEOs end up surprised at the details of the operations. With this new insight into their organization's functioning, leaders can enforce the changes necessary to improve the experience of both employees and customers.

Steps for an Effective Gemba Walk 

1. Prepare Your Team 

The first step to an effective Gemba Walk is communicating your plan to all employees. Let them know about the purpose of the walk and when you plan to conduct it. Once team members know what to expect from the interactive/observation session, they are much more likely to actively engage with the process. Make sure that each participating member understands the ultimate goal is to identify and eliminate the barriers to maximum productivity. 

2. Have a Plan 

A structured plan outlining your goals and concerns is a crucial element of a Gemba Walk. This differentiates it from the generic Management by Walking Around (MBWA), in which the leaders simply wander around and get a surface-level understanding of the work processes. During a Gemba Walk, leaders should delve into the specific process in depth. This may include asking questions like:

  • Who is involved?
  • What tools and platforms are used?
  • How are milestones and deadlines handled?
  • How do the individual efforts and outcomes add value?

3. Follow the Value Stream

Usually, the biggest opportunities for improvement are found at the points of handover between people, processes, or departments. By following the flow of value, leaders can explore these critical points that have the highest potential for waste and inefficiency. Approaching the Gemba Walk with a sense of helpfulness will encourage employees to share their concerns and difficulties more openly. 

4. Focus on Processes, Not People

While strong employee engagement is essential for a Gemba Walk, people should not be the focus of the process. A Gemba Walk is not the time for employee performance evaluation or task management. The precise objective of the Walk is to observe, understand, and ultimately improve processes. Look for honest and complete answers to questions about how, when, and why things are done. You want employees to bring up and address any problems they have with the working approach or procedures, instead of covering it up. 

5. Document Your Observations 

After each section of the walk, and perhaps even during a conversation, log your findings and observations carefully. This will help you keep on track with your plan instead of reacting to new information in the moment. Remember that the time to respond to these issues is after your Gemba Walk, not during it. Take meticulous notes to record what you see and think. Ideally, your organization should also invest in a continuous improvement platform that keeps track of all your observations, tracks their implementation, and notifies you of follow-ups. 

Two coworkers at a whiteboard.

6. Ask Questions 

Compile a list of who, what, where, when, and why questions to help examine and analyze work processes. You can use the following as a starting point for your review:

Who – Who executes the actual work processes? Who provides input and evaluates the outcomes? Who takes the value stream forward?

What – What sequence of operations are carried out by the team? What difficulties lower efficiency or produce waste?

Where – Is the space optimized for maximum productivity? Are the necessary materials easily available? Does the space conform to industry standards?

When – Are process inputs steadily available? When does the next process acquire this output? Is time and/or human capital being wasted at the handover?

Why - How does the process add value to the organization? How is the customer impacted by it?

7. Don't Suggest Changes During the Walk 

Keep in mind that a Gemba Walk is strictly for deeper observation of work processes. Even if you happen to find glaring problems with the current way of working, do not suggest or impose changes on the spot. Your ability to come up with an effective solution will be greatly enhanced after a period of careful consideration and reflection. Withholding judgments and criticisms in this way also encourage employees to recognize the obstacles and practice problem-solving on their own.

8. Walk in Teams 

Consider getting people from other departments involved in the Gemba Walk. Their inputs can bring a fresh perspective to the process that may not be apparent to the people actually doing the hands-on work. The participation of leaders from different functional areas of the organization has been shown to bridge communication between teams.

9. Mix up the Schedule 

Schedule your Gemba Walks at different times of the day, week, and month. This will allow you to get a comprehensive picture of company processes, instead of narrowing the focus down to a few aspects. Mixing up the activity schedule will help you understand how the workflow changes over time.

10. Follow-Up with Employees

Sharing your observations, concerns, and suggestions with your employees is perhaps the most important step in the Gemba process. Gemba Walks are most successful when leaders capture ideas for improvement and communicate their plans for executing these changes. It builds on a sense of mutual confidence, teamwork, and commitment to efficiency in the organization. Getting employees involved in continuous improvement also highlights that the leadership is there to help, not criticize.

11. Gemba Again

As you draw up a schedule for regular Gemba Walks, remember to track the effects of the previous walk. Verify if the necessary changes have been implemented across all participating departments/teams. If quite some time has passed since your last review, observe how well the improvements are working. Ideally, there should be no friction implementing and following up on the progress. This is where a dedicated continuous improvement software can make all the difference.

How can an Idea Management Tool Help with Gemba Walk Follow-Ups?

An idea management software helps organize and streamline the entire Gemba process. It effectively keeps everyone in the loop and ensures that no piece of information slips through the cracks. If leadership, management, and employees all engage with the platform, a company can build a robust culture of continuous improvement.

The software should effortlessly track ideas and changes so improvements identified on a Gemba Walk actually get implemented. Instead of waiting for the next walk, employees can submit their suggestions anytime. The leadership can also take a challenge-based initiative to gather solution ideas. All users get real-time updates and follow-ups about solutions for the identified issues. Implementing this technology also sends a strong message to the team that the organization is committed to making the investments necessary to propel positive change.

Idea Pipeline is an easy-to-use idea management tool that enables you to successfully implement continuous improvement tactics. It is the all-in-one resource you need to record and manage your Gemba findings, crowdsource solutions, and engage your employees in continuous improvement. Eliminate waste and optimize your value stream with a free trial of Idea Pipeline today.


Published by Idea Pipeline January 13, 2022