/Gemba walks: the common pitfalls

Gemba walks: the common pitfalls

Common mistakes in gemba walks

FEATURE – The author discusses the most common mistakes leaders make during gemba walks and the things they need to keep in mind to make the most of this important management practice.



Words: Severino Abad, Lean Coach, Instituto Lean Management – Barcelona



The role of the leader of a lean transformation is critical. Nevertheless, in many cases, leaders can have behaviors that can cause misunderstandings that can make it difficult to achieve the cultural change necessary to turn things around. The worst part? This can happen without them realizing it.

To introduce this topic, we first need to define the actual responsibility of a lean leader. This could be summarized as facilitating the creation of an ecosystem that allows everyone in it to develop themselves to the fullest, through experimentation and learning, in a bid to achieve the full satisfaction of the customer sustainably and in accordance with the strategic plan designed by the organization.

What stands out in this definition is the idea that learning is key to achieve the goals we set for ourselves and that it stems from experimentation. This learning should involve everyone in the organization, including the leader: this is really important in the context of a lean transformation because team members look to their leader as a reference point to get out of their comfort zones. And, sometimes, the leader doesn’t practice what she preaches.

One of the most common activities leaders carry out in a lean environment to develop their capabilities is the well-known gemba walk. According to the Lean Lexicon, a gemba walk is “a management practice for grasping the current situation through direct observation and inquiry before taking action”. Furthermore, books on the subject that come highly recommended – Gemba Walks, Creating a Lean Culture or The Lean Strategy – tell us that this practice is more than just a simple visit to the shop floor to understand how a process works and find opportunities for improvement or potential sources of mistakes. A gemba walk takes us to the realm of learning and people development. It’s a powerful activity that embodies the essence of Lean Thinking and lean leadership. Still, it’s all too easy to make small mistakes – seemingly insignificant – that will turn this mighty tool into an obstacle to a lean transformation, rather than an enabler. I have seen this time and time again over the years, in many of the gembas I have visited.

One of the reasons a gemba walk is less effective than we’d hope comes from the moment we plan it. Many of the managers I have discussed this activity with admitted carrying it out when they can and within the time constraints they have. It sounds reasonable enough, but the truth is that the message this sends to the organization is that a gemba walk is an improvised activity that’s less important than others. Managers who treat gemba walks like this typically confuse them with a “stroll around the estate” a landowner would go on.

  • How to start the dialogue necessary to generate knowledge? Especially when a plan has not been published or shared to inform people of the topic to be discussed. With some notice, everybody would be given the opportunity to contribute their “grain of sand” to understand what’s happening, how it’s happening and why.
  • How can we adequately communicate that we’ll be using this methodology to boost learning and ensure alignment with the company’s strategic objectives? Certainly not by treating the gemba walk as a “nice to have” that is completed only when time allows for it. How often do managers end up cancelling their gemba walks due to “unforeseen circumstances”? And how common are these unforeseen circumstances actually? If this activity can be replaced by any other, we can’t expect people to consider it important.
  • How do we ensure we are looking for the “why” behind problems as opposed to “who” is the blame? This is even harder when, knowing she can’t dedicate the required time to the analysis of a situation, a manager doesn’t involve process people in the improvement and, worse, makes rushed decisions during the gemba walk assigning actions to people who didn’t participate in the diagnosis of the problem and who often don’t even understand it. How can we ask people to follow the steps of the PDCA cycle to solve problems when we improvise and impose countermeasures based on hierarchy.
  • How can workers not feel audited, rather than helped to achieve their objectives, when instead of asking them about the plan of action they are executing to solve a problem a manager only wants to know about the numbers the visual boards is showing? We should never miss an opportunity to show respect and offer people our help.
  • What opportunities will management offer workers to raise problems that will lead to process improvement? How does servant leadership express itself on such occasions? How can we create an environment that is conducive to continuous improvement?
  • How can we achieve an organizational culture that meets the requirements of a lean transformation? I have come across many companies in which workers complain that the managers’ so-called “gemba walk” is not done to get close to the problem and the people who have to deal with it to get a better understanding of the current state, because simply because they read about it in lean literature or the consultant has told them to do it. If managers themselves don’t understand why they are doing something, how can they expect the rest of the organization to know? This hardly makes for credible leadership.
  • How can we make sure we are maintaining basic behaviors that are in line with the company’s culture and necessary to reach our lean goals? How can we check we are following all the procedures tied to job security? How can we improve working conditions reducing or limiting the number of instances in which we need to use personal protective equipment (PPE)? How can we verify that we are meeting work standards? In other words, how can we be sure certain behaviors are followed?
  • How can leadership realize that the team doesn’t have the means they need to complete the work? All too often, decisions are made (typically temporarily) to use certain production methods that, although they are not the most adequate, will allow the organization to start production. However, this decision brings with it a number of obstacles to normal production. What’s worse is that these obstacles were consciously introduced in our system and that they often become permanent hindrances to a smooth operation. Under these conditions, how can we achieve business goals?
  • One of the most negative effects of a “bad gemba walk” is that leaders who merely use it to share their opinion (or give orders) without creating new knowledge will not learn much from this experience that will help with the improvement of process and with the creation of new challenging for the team.

Another common problem I have seen on many company visits is that gemba walks are not concentrated on a specific topic, which often results in unfocused and ineffective measures (the worst effect, however, is that the rest of the business will have a feeling the management team is improvising).

Gemba walks really are powerful activities, but they require practice if they are to achieve the results we hope for and, more than anything, not create misunderstandings that will make it more difficult for people to work together and coordinate their efforts.

For a company interested in making the most of a gemba walk, the first step is to develop staff and communicate to them (in this order):

  • The “why”. what are we hoping to achieve with this gemba walk? Without clarity on this, all you’ll have is misunderstanding and the ensuing conflict.
  • The “how”. Gemba walks need to become activities that are plannable, visible and predictable (they should follow a predetermined path). Furthermore, the managers of the areas touched by the gemba walk will have to participate to both increase their understanding of the work and reach consensus among their teams on what needs to be done and when.
  • The “what”. Give the gemba walk a recognizable name (you can call it “gemba walk” if your team is not put off by Japanese words) and make it a part of the leader’s standard work.

I recommend you start with your gemba walks as early in your transformation as possible (no time like the present to begin to practice and to make learning-by-doing your modus operandi), but not before having brushed up three fundamental ideas brought to us by Toyota’s Honorary Chairman Fujio Cho:

  • Go & See. We must understand the need and the importance of going to see how the process works, to ensure that the team members and the processes they run go in the same direction as the company goals. We also need to communicate to the rest of the organization just how important this is (don’t forget that one of the main responsibilities of a lean leader is to develop people and turn them into future leaders themselves). To make the most of the limited time available, it’s advisable to suggest a topic to focus on – some common ones include safety and working conditions, quality issues (especially those that are recurring or have caused customer complaints), lead-time reduction or service improvement, an ongoing policy of cost reduction, or even improving the customer experience.
  • Ask Why. This seemingly question – Why? – is the main driver of knowledge creation. It’s critical we get to know each process in detail and eliminate problems day after day by identifying their root cause. When we ask “Why?”, we give people an opportunity to improve and detect those activities that are disjointed from customer value. This way, we will be able to connect our worries with the A3s we have opened and the improvements we are working on. Besides, this is how we identify the need for training for our people, to ensure they can apply the principles of PDCA naturally and continuously.
  • Show respect. To understand how processes work, what problems they present, what actions are being taken to tackle these difficulties, and – of course – to participate in their resolution and in improvement is a way for leadership to show people the respect they deserve. Being there for workers in a structured way will facilitate the creation of that mutual trust without which a business has no chance of succeeding.

Finally, having a moment of reflection on what the different people engaged in the process have observed at the gemba will go a long way towards designing the right response rather than jumping to solutions that are typically biased by hierarchy. Essentially, we need to help the whole organization understand that “we are all in same boat”, that we have the same interests, and that we will pursue them in a structured way that has its foundations in the scientific method.



THE AUTHOR

Severino Abad photo

Severino Abad is a Lean Coach with Instituto Lean Management in Barcelona.