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5 min read

Gemba Walks: You gotta go. Here's what you need to know.


​Written by Lela Glikes
​Director of Programs, GBMP

Direct observation – seeing for yourself – isn’t just a keystone of The Toyota Production System. It’s the underpinning of all of science. Secondhand information cannot substitute for being there, intently watching and listening, trying to understand on the spot what’s actually happening.

Before Galileo conducted his now-famous experiment to demonstrate the force of gravity, the prevailing world view of this experiment was that if a large and small ball were dropped together, the large ball would fall faster. This incorrect image of reality had been in place for over 1000 years before Galileo challenged it.  For promoting this revolutionary concept of direct observation, Galileo is often referred to today as the “father of science.” But in his own time, he was ostracized as a heretic because he challenged status quo thinking.

So, what’s that have to do with going to see the workplace today – and, in particular, management’s role when we “go see”? Several key points come to mind. First, to understand the physics of the situation, we need to observe for ourselves. Second, the observation should relate to a hypothesis. Galileo actually disproved the hypothesis that the heavy ball would fall faster, creating a new version of we call common sense. Today, every grade-schooler can tell you about that experiment. This represents the technical side of ‘go see’ that requires both critical thinking and an open mind.

But there is also an essential social side to direct observation, which is management’s most important contribution to improvement.  Galileo’s brilliance was squashed in his lifetime because, in effect, because he had no management support.  They didn’t go see, didn’t have an open mind, and above all were not scientists. As a result, it took another few hundred years for Galileo’s thinking to be accepted. Without management validation and support, brilliant ideas languish, and improvement stalls.

Those of you who have seen Toast Kaizen, a short video to demonstrate the power of Kaizen – small changes for the better – may also recollect that direct observation was needed to understand the toasting process before we could even talk about improvement.

As a starting point, remember. You have two roles when you go see. 

First, you’re a scientist, present with a critical but open mind. You go to the Gemba to learn. 

Second, you are there to help in whatever capacity you are able. And if you’re a top manager, you can help in ways to energize and accelerate your Lean transformation efforts that no one else in your organization can provide – removing roadblocks, providing resources and generally creating an environment that challenges employees but also gives them safety to experiment without reprisal. 

Here are a few specific tips for Gemba Walks:

For starters, tip one: if you haven’t been in the practice of visiting the workplace, be careful not to scare people. Particularly as you begin to visit the floor, get your first-line supervisors involved upfront so that they can explain to their employees that management is visiting the floor understand and help to remove the struggles that employees have with their jobs. There will still be concern on the floor when you first visit, but a least a little less than if you show up unannounced.  This also engages your first-line supervisors upfront, lessening their concerns as well. In fact, a little preparation on your part will you some background on problems and opportunities in a particular area that will make you more comfortable when you go see. Having time to reflect on these in advance of meeting with associates will make you a more informed listener.  We repeat - informed yes, but only for listening and observing. You need to listen and observe. Ask questions, yes, to understand, but don’t also answer them – even if you think you know the answer.

Please remember that in a traditional environment, employees wait to be told what they think. As a top manager in a Lean environment, your job is to change that paradigm. You’re not just going to the floor as a scientist; you are also the chief executive change agent. Once you change, it will be easier for your managers and supervisors to change also. 

Tip Two: Don’t intimidate your employees bring a large posse of managers to go see. This just complicates communication. Yes, you may also benefit from having other managers along with the top manager so that they can learn as well, but don’t make the group so large that participation is difficult.

Tip Three: There are just so many ways to insult and disrespect people – and the more elevated your position in the organization, the bigger the insult. Here’s a list of Don’t’s Bottom line? If you can’t handle the social part of going to see, then you’ll never get to the science part. Respect for people is one of the most basic principles of the Toyota Production System. If you can’t show respect, then expect nothing in return.

  • Point, Lean, Drink
  • Use your phone, eat, laugh in a way that could be perceived by anyone that you are laughing about others working
  • Argue, interrupt the team members workflow, make verbal judgments about what is bad or different about the worksite you are in (this includes safety practices, quality procedures)
  • Stand over people (like lurking or stalking), get in the way of the team members working path, stand with your back to the team members for an extended period of time
  • Waste time with questions that are long and hard for the group to understand
  • Violate any safety procedure the company has requested
  •  Carry on multiple conversations within a group, make comments that can be overheard and taken out of context, come to the worksite without some way of saying hello or introducing yourself
  • Take pictures or video, or use stopwatches in any way without being involved with members from their organization,
  • Snoop through their documentation at the worksite

Managers often are oblivious to the impact that their individual behaviors have on team members.   All of these “don’ts” can render your visits to Gemba worse than ineffective if you don’t avoid them. 

So okay, that’s the Law. Now here’s Gospel: the good news.  If you offer appropriate, supportive behaviors, these will be understood by employees as well. And the more senior your role, the more impactful these behaviors will be to everyone involved. If you are the top manager, you take the lead and then others will follow. You won’t see an overnight turnaround – but very soon your sincerity and passion will catch on. 

It’s critical to connect with your team members in a way that will enable the science part of the Gemba walk to be productive. 

  • Respectfully recognize each person with eye contact
  • Ask interested, authentic questions of the people available at the worksite
  • Seek to understand and find things to replicate at your organization
  • Be aware that your posture and body positioning is telling a story to others (ex. shaking your head in a negative way when looking underneath a roller conveyor, yawning)
  • Try to stay with a high level of alertness to things all around you (360 degrees is ideal)
  • Wear the appropriate PPE at all times, be aware of other visitors to the worksite (auditors, customers, video crew, etc.),
  • Thank people for their time, insight, advice or let them know how you will benefit from their gift of sharing time and experience
In many ways, the social part of the Gemba walk is harder than the go see science, because it requires a change in management behavior.  At GBMP we like to say that Lean transformation is 90% people and 10% technical and the journey never ends of course. This is always room for improvement. Easier, better faster and cheaper, as Shigeo Shingo said, is the order for improvement. When you go to the Gemba, your role is to empower employees to achieve these ends and then to provide resources they can’t muster themselves – or remove roadblocks in your system that hold them back. Does your system “make these problems ugly?” Does the environment favor reporting problems?  Are there policies or organizational problems the inadvertently stymie improvement efforts? Take notes. These problems are your homework.

You don’t go to Gemba to tell anyone how to do their job; you go to ask and understand what they need to do their job. You go to remove their struggles.  And you go to learn and deepen your understanding so that you can be a better manager.  Your Gemba walk may be only 30 minutes, but if you follow these guidelines it will enable your team members to create breakthrough improvement and keep your organization headed in a True North direction.

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