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Operational Efficiency

Doing the (Lean) Gemba Walk

Ensuring efficiency in your operation is a key challenge for any businesses, but get it right and it can significantly impact your productivity and ultimately your businesses bottom line. Geoff Crossley, specialist manufacturing advisor at the Business Growth Hub, digs into his lean toolbox and discusses the virtues of the Gemba Walk when put into practice by manufacturing businesses.

I was once asked; “What is the quickest way to increase productivity in a factory?” I suspect the question was slightly tongue-in-cheek as every factory is different.  

However, the question stuck with me long after it was asked and my answer would now be the “Gemba Walk” or what my Grandma would have called, “simple common sense” (as are many things in the lean toolbox). 

But you’re probably thinking what on earth does ‘Gemba’ mean? Well, Gemba is a Japanese term meaning ‘the real place’ – in business, this refers to the place where value is created; in manufacturing, this is the factory floor. So the Gemba Walk can be thought of as ‘walking the factory floor’.

To me, the Gemba Walk is a simple, useful and productive activity any management team can undertake that will ALWAYS improve productivity.

Why you should make time to walk the factory floor? 

Going on a Gemba walk is an opportunity to capture topics and concerns relating to how effective your business is performing from a shop-floor perspective. Walking the floor of the workspace enables you to see production first-hand, to look for waste and opportunities for improvements.

What are you looking for?

Any wasteful activity or safety hazards, an opportunity to assess the condition of tools and machinery, observe work in progress, see how operating procedures are practiced, talk to employees to build relations and understand their day-to-day challenges.

What will you gain from Gemba walks?

An opportunity to observe the work on the factory floor as it happens, asking questions in order to become more aware of what is going on and how well (or badly) processes are running.

How to Gemba walk…

OK, so if it is that easy why does it have a special name and why do so few businesses do it properly? To get the most out of a Gemba Walk, you need to make sure you have a good process for preparation and execution – this will allow you to close the loop and provide meaningful actions.

The underlying principles are to:

  • Observe
  • Engage
  • Improve

Observe, don’t assume

The objective is to understand the workplace in its day-to-day reality. In most cases employees should never need to hear the term Gemba, know what your plan is, or your schedule – because you’re looking to observe as normal a working day as possible.

Don't jump to any conclusions on the first walk; authenticate your results over time. When the time comes to get involved and implement change you will need to know your facts; until then watch, ask questions and listen.

Engage with your team

Respect and gain the trust of the employees you speak to as a coach and mentor. Listen carefully as the individual knows the good and bad points of their job better than anyone else!  Ask questions make notes, reserve judgment and collate your knowledge.

Improve what you know

Often it’s best to focus on an area with known issues, but vary the areas you walk to gain a wider understanding.

Don’t jump to any conclusions, even if it’s obvious! Support your team to change within a decision structure, demonstrating that if they can show a cost benefit, resources will be made available. Remembering that if the team come up with the plan (with guidance) embedding any changes will be simpler.

TIP: Often it’s best to focus on an area with known issues, but vary the areas you walk to gain a wider understanding.

Preparation is key

Please don't just grab a pad and head out, plan for your walk to take between 30 minutes and an hour. If you’re the director, plan to do this once a week. A team leader should complete a walk every day. 

What to do with all the information you gather?

This intelligence should form a central part of teamwork in meetings, and during continuous improvement activity. It will help you to prioritise and provides a focus for strategic planning.

Things to avoid

  1. However frustrated you are with what you see, don’t show it
  2. Don’t be tempted to go over the head of your line management
  3. Don’t criticise, find ways to communicate with your team without attributing blame
  4. Be careful of obviously observing, ‘Observer effect’ is not confined to physics
  5. Plan ahead to keep the date and time free otherwise it will get pushed out by other priorities

Finally, don’t confuse Gemba with Management by Walking Around (MbWA) which doesn’t provide the same results:

“MbWA is hardly ever effective. The reason is that someone in management, walking around, has little idea about what questions to ask and usually does not pause long enough at any spot to get the right answer” - W.E. Deming.


Sample checklist for your first walk

While a Gemba walk is not an audit, here’s a list of some of the things you can look out for on your first walk:

  • Is the workplace safe?
  • Is the 5s system being sustained?
  • Are information/KPI measures displayed and up to date?
  • Are SOPs on show, up to date and legible?
  • Is work ahead or behind schedule?
  • Is machinery and equipment running, maintained, clean and in good condition?
  • Are all hand tools standardised and stored for easy access when not in use?
  • Are there any bottlenecks?
  • Is WIP in danger of damage?
  • Can you see any leaks, spills or damage?
  • Do you hear any abnormal noises such as air leaks?
  • If it looks wrong it probably is!

Keep in mind the eight wastes:

  • Transport
  • Inventory
  • Motion
  • Waiting
  • Over production
  • Over processing
  • Defects
  • Skills

Further reading

Womack, Jim, 2013, Gemba Walks (2nd Edition), Cambridge, MA, Lean Enterprise Institute

Download a free factsheet on eliminating the 8 wastes
Geoff Crossley

Geoff Crossley, Senior Manufacturing Advisor

Geoff is a highly skilled manufacturing specialist, practiced in supporting manufacturing businesses to implement lean tools and techniques which will increase efficiency. Geoff is passionate about helping manufacturers work smarter and to do more with less.

With a background in engineering design and experience running a successful business, Geoff is skilled at strategic planning, developing sales and marketing strategies to generate new customers and delivering sustained profitability.

To view Geoff's full profile including technical capabilities and industry experience, please click here.

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