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Monday, August 16, 2021

Using the Gemba Walk to Learn and Engage

While there are many things that affect employee engagement, getting leadership to the place where work is done, the Gemba, and actively engaging with the workforce, seeing with their own eyes the problems that occur, listening to associates and giving advice and direction (coaching) to the team is a critical factor in increasing overall engagement.

All too often, attempts are made to solve problems without knowing anything about or are not being familiar with a particular area or process -- resulting in a misdiagnosis or failed solution. Answers come from the floor, from the Gemba, where the condition occurs. You need to go to the real place and experience these conditions for yourself before being able to take the next steps.

A Gemba Walk is a method to engage the workforce in their native environment. The primary purpose of Gemba walking is to teach. When you are the Gemba walker, you are playing the role of sensei (mentor, coach, teacher). The role of the sensei is to ask questions, introduce new tools and approaches, stimulate new thinking, teach, and (sparingly) to give advice.

A Gemba walk is not a random, unplanned visit to “check up” on the workforce or catch employees being unproductive. It is also not the equivalent of a department meeting whereby leadership pull staff together to deliver a series of messages. Instead, Gemba walks are planned in advance and entered into with a particular objective in mind (e.g., teach something, learn something, role model a behavior, build a relationship, etc.).

Gemba Walks can be summarized by:

     Go to the actual place.

     Get the facts about the actual thing or activity.

     Grasp the entire situation.

     Generate reasons that explain what is happening.

     Guide corrective actions or countermeasures.

 It has been said that the farther removed a leader becomes from the place where the work gets done, the less effective he/she will be in supporting those who do the work. And while that statement may be largely accurate, it’s also true that all operational leaders, but particularly department leaders and above, are pulled in many different directions during a given day, week, or month and may not feel that they have time to spend out in the operation where the products are made or the services rendered.

Additionally, some leaders, particularly those that didn’t start out working in operational roles, may not know how to productively spend time in the operation. Where should they go? What should they observe? Who should they talk to?

No matter what your position is or what you are working on you can not underestimate the importance of going to the Gemba. You can’t solve problems at your desk. Going to the Gemba is a great way to get the entire team involved in identifying and solving problems. It is grounded in fact finding using actual conditions from the actual workers who perform the work. This activity creates energy within the team solving the problem leading to experimentation, ideas, and discussion on improvements.

As leaders, we should spend the majority of our time on the Gemba engaged with both the people and process. This time should be structured and not what I call “Industrial Tourism” where all the leader does is walk around and shake hands and kiss babies. This is superficial and actively works to disengage employees.

A former President of Toyota once said he spent more than 80% of his time at the Gemba helping solve problems and removing the burden from the workforce. By doing so, he is helping develop those that he encounters and this creates a more engaged workforce.

Gemba walking teaches us to see in new ways what we have failed to see before. So what do you look for and how do you see it? All management should learn to ask these three simple questions:

       1) What is the process?

       2) How can you tell it is working?

       3) What are you doing to improve it (if it is working)?

Contrary to popular opinion, the workforce will come to appreciate the presence of leadership in their place of work because it sends the signal that leaders want to understand the challenges they face every day and opens up opportunities for a constructive dialogue.

While conducting structured Gemba walks have many benefits, here are nine reasons why leaders should be doing Gemba walks:

  • Gemba walks build relationships with those that do the work and create value in the organization.
  • Interacting with employees at the Gemba enables leaders to uncover problems and eliminate them quickly.
  • Gemba walks provide leaders with the opportunity to praise people for the good work that they do.
  • Management can be sure that the work that needs to be done is getting done.
  • Goals and objectives can clearly be communicated face-to-face.
  • A visible leader can increase employee engagement.
  • Gemba walks can help develop people through coaching and mentoring.
  • Gemba walks can help the leader validate data, emails and spreadsheets with their own eyes.
  • Gemba walks can enable accountability to occur since the leader is not disconnected from the actions or results. When they “see it” they “own it”.

Remember, as the leader engages the people and processes, he or she should always show respect and understand if something is amiss, it is not the individual’s fault, rather the process and the leader are the guilty parties. A Gemba walk is not an employee evaluation. The purpose is to observe, understand, and ultimately improve processes.

Lean manufacturing doesn’t have to be a complicated process or involve lots of foreign-sounding buzzwords. What matters most is that you engage with the frontline employees regularly and use the walks as an opportunity to learn and improve. So, establish and stick to a routine including regular visits to the Gemba, check the status of visual controls, follow-up on daily accountability assignments, and ask the three simple questions everywhere. This approach can help you with every aspect of the improvement process, from root cause analysis to Kaizen. Keep learning, thinking, and teaching in the Gemba.

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