Mt Kilamajaro

If you don’t walk you won’t see the world.

A Gemba walk is a formal tool to see what is happening and to use that observation to develop improvements. The term Gemba comes from the Japanese term gembutsu, which means “real thing” which is sometimes translated to “real place.” In the workplace, the concept translates to observing where teams work or deliver value. Like many process improvement tools, the concept of a Gemba walk is deceptively simple because it is a mix of structured process and art. The basic process is:

  1. Prepare for the walk. Preparing for the walk includes “sub” steps:

  • Decide on the purpose. Ask your team (or yourself), why you are going on a Gemba walk. Your intent will tell you what part of the flow of work to observe. Deciding where to look is often a reflection of perceived pain. In a perfect world, it would be best to begin your journey by developing a value chain map and gather measurement data and observations that show where problems are appearing before your first Gemba walk. In a less than perfect world, waiting isn’t an option. As a result, you will have to establish the purpose of the walk based on other inputs.
  • Establish the scope of the walk. The purpose will have a large impact on the scope of the walk. Knowledge of the value stream is important to keep the scope of the walk from expanding.
  • Remind, refresh and coach the walk participants on appropriate walk behaviors. Gemba walks focus on process, not people. The behavior of those on the walk as they interact with people as they work will influence the information you gather.

2. Go see the work. Observe what is happening. As an observer, you need to test your assumptions about what you think is happening against what is actually happening AND learn. As you observe ask (silently at first and then out loud):

  • Do the people in the organization understand the purpose of their work?
  • Do they follow standard work processes?
  • Do they understand performance expectations (and why those expectations exist)?
  • Is there a scientific approach to problem-solving in use?
  • What is getting in the way of people doing their job?

During the observation consider muda (wastes), mura (uneven) and muri (overburden) (Note we will return to muda, mura, and muri soon). Observing is not standing in the corner and leering at people as they work. Observing requires asking the right questions and then listening to the answer. Begin by asking what questions before you ask why questions. Don’t diagnosis and solve issues on the spot, gather data and deliberate before suggesting a change.

3. Perform a walk debrief. In agile we would call this step a retrospective. Perform the debrief/retrospective as soon after the walk as possible. Ask what worked and what didn’t work. Ask whether the questions generated knowledge and whether the walkers enhanced the self-esteem of those they interacted with. Finally, ask whether the walkers can use the observations to make a decision NOW. The goal of any Gemba walk is to make changes in support of the purpose identified in step 1.

Deciding on the purpose and scope of a Gemba walk is part science and part art. The part that is science is driven by measurement and observation of the organization’s value stream(s). When there isn’t data and there is a clear sign that waiting to get the data is a problem, we rely on art. Observation and questioning are arts, but arts supported by science. Science helps us ask the right questions; art helps us ask correctly.