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Gemba in Action – Eyes on Efficiency

In a world of continuous change and relentless competition, the key to success is operational efficiency. One of the most powerful tools for enhancing it is the Gemba Walk. This method, rooted in the philosophy of lean management, invites leaders and employees to directly observe processes where they happen – at the “Gemba,” or the actual place of work. This enables not only the identification of waste but also direct engagement in creating solutions. In this article, we will present how to effectively conduct a Gemba Walk and what benefits it can bring to your organization.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction to Gemba
  2. Why is a Gemba Walk essential for every leader?
  3. What to Observe and How to Ask Questions?
  4. Gemba Walk as a Tool for Identifying Waste
  5. Practical Tips and Real-Life Examples
  6. Summary

1. Introduction to Gemba

The term “Gemba” comes from the Japanese word meaning “the actual place” – the place where action happens, where value is created. In the context of production management and lean management, Gemba refers to places where work is done: on the production floor, in the warehouse, in office spaces – everywhere employees directly contribute to the creation of a product or service.
The significance of Gemba in business is profound. It forms the foundation of the lean philosophy, which focuses on eliminating waste and continuously improving processes. A Gemba Walk gives leaders and managers direct insight into daily work, enabling them to understand processes, identify problems, and challenges from the perspective of those who are closest to the value being delivered. This is key to building a culture of continuous improvement and engaging employees in the decision-making process, which in turn leads to increased efficiency and productivity.

2. Why is a Gemba Walk essential for every leader?

A Gemba Walk is not a mere walkthrough. It’s an organized, purposeful activity aimed not only at observation but also at communication with the team, understanding processes and challenges, and identifying opportunities for improvement. For leaders and managers, a Gemba Walk offers a range of benefits:

  • Direct Insight: Direct observation of work allows leaders to understand operational realities, which is often difficult from an office perspective. A Gemba Walk provides context and a deeper understanding of processes.
  • Communication and Engagement: A Gemba Walk is an opportunity to build relationships with employees, listen to their opinions and concerns, and communicate the vision and goals of the organization. This builds trust and promotes a culture of openness and collaboration.
  • Identification of Waste and Issues: Observing processes in their natural environment allows for the identification of problems and waste that might be overlooked when analyzing reports and data. Examples of waste can include excess work, delays, errors, or unnecessary inventory.
  • Supporting Continuous Improvement: A Gemba Walk creates opportunities for problem-solving with the team, inspiring employees to think critically and propose their own solutions. This promotes a culture of continuous improvement and innovation.
  • Strategy Execution: Regular Gemba Walks allow for monitoring progress in achieving the strategic goals of the organization, identifying areas that require additional support or a change in direction.
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3. What to Observe and How to Ask Questions?

During a Gemba Walk, leaders should focus on observing processes, behaviors, and working conditions. Here are some elements to pay attention to:

  • Workflow: How do processes flow? Are there any obvious obstacles, delays, or inefficiencies?
  • Workstation: Are workstations well-organized? Do employees have easy access to the tools and materials they need?
  • Safety and Ergonomics: Are safety rules being followed? Are working conditions ergonomic?
  • Communication: How is communication between employees? Are there clear communication channels and are they effective?
  • Employee Engagement: Are employees engaged in their work? Do they seem motivated and interested in continuous improvement?

Equally important as observation during the walk is asking the right questions. Questions should be open-ended and aimed at understanding rather than judging. Examples of such questions include:

“Can you tell me how this process works?”
“What challenges do you face in your work on a daily basis?”
“What ideas do you have for improving this process?”
“Are there any tools or resources that could make your work easier?”

Asking questions in a way that encourages open communication helps build trust and understanding between leaders and the team, and also inspires collective search for solutions.

4. Gemba Walk as a Tool for Identifying Waste

The Gemba Walk is a powerful tool that can help organizations identify and eliminate waste—a key component in the philosophy of lean management. By directly engaging in the workplace, leaders can observe processes, communicate with employees, and identify inefficiencies that impact productivity and quality.

Five Steps to an Effective Gemba Walk:

  1. Preparation:
    • Setting Objectives: Before starting the Gemba Walk, it’s important to have clearly defined goals. Is the aim to identify waste in general, or to focus on a specific aspect of the production process?
    • Planning: Decide which areas will be visited, who will participate in the walk, and what tools (e.g., notebook, camera) will be needed to document observations.
  2. Observation:
    • Direct Observations: Focus on directly observing processes, rather than relying on reports or opinions. Watch the workflow, resource use, and how employees interact with processes and tools.
    • Paying Attention to Details: Detailed observation is key in identifying waste, which often can be hidden in daily routines.
  3. Interaction:
    • Asking Questions: Ask open questions to understand employees’ perspectives and their experiences with the observed processes.
    • Listening: Active listening is essential to fully understand the challenges and opportunities identified by employees.
  4. Analysis:
    • Identifying Waste: Based on observations and conversations, identify areas where there is a waste of time, resources, or talents.
    • Classifying Waste: Use lean principles to classify observed waste (e.g., overproduction, excess inventory, unnecessary movement).
  5. Action:
    • Action Planning: Based on the identification and analysis of waste, develop an action plan to eliminate or reduce it.
    • Implementation and Monitoring: Implement changes, monitor their effectiveness, and make adjustments as needed.

Common Issues and Their Solutions:

  • Overproduction: Producing more products than required can lead to excess inventory and increased costs. Better alignment of production processes with actual demand can be a solution.
  • Waiting Time: Long waiting periods between stages of the production process can significantly impact order fulfillment time. Optimizing workflow and eliminating unnecessary stages in the process can be effective solutions.
  • Excess Transportation: Unnecessary movement of products between different areas can lead to time loss and increased risk of damage. Minimizing distances between production stages and better layout planning can significantly reduce this type of waste.
  • Overprocessing: Performing more work than necessary to meet customer requirements is a waste of resources. Analyzing and simplifying processes, eliminating unnecessary steps, and standardization can contribute to reducing this type of waste.
  • Defects: Errors and discrepancies lead to the need for rework or repeating processes, generating additional costs. Implementing quality control systems at every stage of production and training employees in preventive techniques can significantly reduce the number of defects.
  • Excess Inventory: Storing excessive amounts of raw materials, parts, or finished products involves storage costs and the risk of obsolescence. Implementing Just-In-Time (JIT) inventory management systems helps maintain inventory at a minimal, optimal level.
  • Inefficient Use of Talents: Not fully utilizing the potential of employees is a form of waste that is often overlooked. Engaging employees in the decision-making process, delegating responsibilities, and developing skills can contribute to better use of their abilities.

Using the Gemba Walk as a tool for identifying waste offers a unique opportunity to directly understand and assess production and operational processes. The key to success lies not only in identifying problems but primarily in implementing effective solutions and continuous improvement. Through regular Gemba Walks, leaders can continuously monitor the effects of implemented changes, promote a culture of continuous improvement, and engage employees in the improvement process, ultimately leading to increased efficiency, cost reduction, and quality improvement.


5. Practical Tips and Real-Life Examples

To ensure a Gemba Walk is an effective tool, it’s not enough just to walk around and observe. What’s crucial is understanding how to implement observations in practice and how to sustain continuous improvement. Below, we offer practical tips and real-life examples that will help in maximizing the benefits derived from Gemba Walks.

Practical Tips:

  • Build Engagement: Communicate the purpose and value of the Gemba Walk with the team. Show that it’s an opportunity for collective development, not for judging or criticizing.
  • Be Present: A Gemba Walk requires your full attention. Leave your phone and other distractions behind. Focus on the present and direct interaction with employees.
  • Use Open Questions: Ask questions that encourage discussion and sharing ideas. Questions like “How can we improve this?” or “What is the biggest challenge in this process?” are valuable.
  • Note and Act: Document observations and ideas. It’s important that each Gemba Walk results in concrete actions and an implementation plan.
  • Celebrate Success: Recognize and reward progress and successful initiatives resulting from the Gemba Walk. This strengthens the culture of continuous improvement.

Real-Life Examples:

Workflow Optimization: A manufacturing company noticed during a Gemba Walk that employees were losing time moving between workstations to access tools and materials. By changing the layout of the workstations and using tool carts, they significantly reduced the time of movement, which translated into higher work efficiency.

Improving Communication: In another case, a manager during a Gemba Walk noticed that information about changes in the production schedule was reaching employees with a delay, causing confusion and downtime. Introducing daily short meetings (stand-up meetings) at the start of the shift allowed for faster dissemination of information and increased production flexibility.

Elimination of Excess Inventory: A company producing automotive parts identified during a Gemba Walk excessive inventories of components that occupied valuable warehouse space. An analysis of the causes led to the optimization of orders and better alignment of deliveries with actual demand, which reduced costs and improved work organization.

6. Summary

The Gemba Walk, a cornerstone of the lean management philosophy, is a key tool enabling leaders and workers to gain direct insights into production and operational processes, identify waste, and initiate improvement actions. With proper preparation, purposeful observation, effective communication, and engagement, the Gemba Walk transforms daily work routines into opportunities for continuous improvement and innovation. Practical tips and real-life examples underscore the value of this tool in optimizing workflow, improving communication, and eliminating excess inventory. Thus, the Gemba Walk is not just a way to enhance operational efficiency but also to build a culture of continuous improvement and engagement at all levels of the organization.