A gemba walk is paying a visit to the “real place”, “where it happens”, the gemba. This visit is a critical one, as the visitor wants to make his mind about a problem, about the way things are done or in a broader sense, to check if it is possible to walk the talk.
In a Jan 9, 2014 industryweek blog post, Bill Wilder explains gemba as:
In short, it’s the place that matters most. It could be a crime scene: In Poe’s The Tell-tale Heart, gemba is that heart thumping under the floorboards. In sports, it’s wherever the ball is. In business, it’s the place where real value is created, the place where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. In other words, gemba is the beating heart of your organization.
How does Jim Womack define what is Gemba? / what is a Sensei?
The gemba walk is a management practice to grasp the situation before taking action. Jim Womack
Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect
John Shook, CEO of Lean Enterprise Institute in a Jun 22, 2011 industryweek blog post explains quite extensively what a gemba walk is, summarizing it in this mantra: Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect.
You may read the post here: http://www.industryweek.com/workforce/how-go-gemba?page=1
Alternate source: http://www.lean.org/shook/displayobject.cfm?o=1843
In short and from my point of view, Go See is a way to check if what is done is contributing to the organization’s goal / purpose, well aligned and if the processes don’t waste resources. Deviations are opportunities to improve but may be disqualifiers in case of client’s audit. A gemba walk is a kind of Lean assessment. Such a walk can reveal much about Lean maturity, discipline, culture, performance and consistency with alleged policy, hence the question: can we walk the talk?
A gemba walk can reveal improvement opportunities, especially when seeing some kind of waste (Muda, Mura or Muri) or give important clues about a problem.
Ask why is meant to validate your assumptions and understanding when observing processes during the walk. Those who know best why something is done in this strange or efficient manner are people contributing to this process. The way of asking matters, the recommendation is not to push own opinion or conclusion but truly ask why and listen carefully to the answer. Ask why in the right way is also an inductor for people to discover the waste or uselessness of some task and letting them the opportunity to propose an improvement.
Showing respect starts with good behavior but it’s more than saying hello. Stick to the rules like wearing safety shoes and helmet where required, keep on walking where allowed, don’t touch material and parts…
Showing respect is also considering that even the most humble person involved in operations is a subject matter expert of sorts, knowing his/her job and all ins and outs far better than the gemba walker. Showing respect is giving this kind of person opportunity to express his/her analysis and ideas about actual situation and possible improvements.
Furthermore, these people are doing the work, creating value and contributing to organization’s purpose.
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Related: What is Gemba?