In our continuing focus on continuous improvement (did you see what we did there?) in general and lean manufacturing in particular, we thought we’d write an introduction to to the ideas of gemba, going to the gemba, and gemba walks in this article.
The idea of a gemba walk is central to how lean manufacturing attempts to increase organizational learning, reduce waste, increase value, and generally improve over time.
And since we figure you’ve got an interest in lean manufacturing, we’ve included a free What Is 5S? infographic for you at the bottom of this article.
Read on for your quick introduction to the gemba and gemba walks.
The Japanese word gemba translates into English as something like “the real place.”
In the context of business or lean manufacturing, the gemba is where work gets done. In a manufacturing environment, that would mean the gemba is the production floor.
A gemba walk is the act of going to the area where the work is done–such as the production floor–and observing, trying to understand the work, asking questions of workers, and learning.
It’s important to remember that the point of a gemba walk isn’t to tell workers how to do things “the right way” and it’s not to impose fear or discipline. Instead, the focus is on watching, observing, asking questions of the workers (who are, after all, the real experts on how work gets done), and trying to learn. You can then use what you learned by watching the work process and asking questions of workers as part of your continuous improvement efforts.
This same idea is also used in quality management, and I’d argue that the focus on learning from employees at the “sharp end” makes the gemba walk model instructive for safety professionals doing site walks as well.
The central reason of taking gemba walks is a recognition that (1) to improve your work processes, increasing value production and decreasing waste, you’ve got to really know your work processes, and (2) workers often know more about how work gets done than managers do.
A gemba walk gets a manager out of his or her office and down into the work area. And it’s a method to learn from observation and by asking smart questions of workers. You’ll learn by doing this if you do it correctly.
And, when done correctly, it’s a way to improve trust between workers and supervisors. To learn more about creating relationships at work that lead to improvements and innovation, read our article on Psychological Safety.
Organizational and operational learning are at the center of continuous improvement efforts (see our articles on Learning Organizations and Continuous Improvement at Work for more on this). And gemba walks can play an important role in this.
If you’re new to gemba walks, give it a try and let us know how it worked out for you. If you’re an experienced gemba walker, please share your experiences and insights below.
And before you go, don’t forget to download our free 5S infographic below.
Download this free infographic explaining 5S, one of the foundations of lean manufacturing.