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By: Ben Baldwin
December 1, 2020
Learning how to do a Gemba Walk is an essential part of any company's improvement plan. Gemba walks help company leaders gain a real perspective on their business processes and procedures while connecting with their workers.
Whether you are a front-line supervisor, department manager, plant manager, or executive, the challenge is the same: get to where the work is happening and observe how your business operates - everything from the big picture to the small details.
This practice in observation is referred to as a Gemba Walk. It is a principle of Lean manufacturing and is centered on reducing waste and maximizing the value-added to each company process. The term “Gemba” is a Japanese word meaning “real place”. Instead of only evaluating company processes and data from an office, it is highly valuable to go to the Gemba, the real place, where value-creating work occurs.
When looking at how to do a Gemba Walk, having the right plan, attitude, people, and tools are essential. By aligning these factors, you and others will get the most out of each experience.
To help you prepare for your next Gemba Walk, here are 7 essential practices to keep in mind.
Before setting out on a Gemba Walk, it is important to have a plan and pinpoint exactly what you set out to observe and achieve. You should have a defined purpose that targets a specific area of your operation and a general plan of how to view it. By limiting the scope or theme of each walk, you can remain focused and weed out distractions.
When searching for areas to observe, start by looking at your value stream and KPIs to see where improvements can be made. Often points of transition in the value stream are susceptible to inefficiencies that can use improvement.
Though Gemba Walks do not always need to be done in teams, it is a good practice. Inviting other leaders from your company to participate provides varied perspectives and ultimately adds value to the walk. Those who are unfamiliar with a certain process are likely to ask different questions. This illuminates areas that can potentially go unnoticed.
When assembling your team, be sure to share with them the purpose and the objectives for each walk by integrating them into the plan. Discussing the goals and objectives beforehand will help you and your team be better situated on how to do a Gemba Walk.
You will be talking with employees that work where value is created. They have a wealth of knowledge that will help you better understand the challenges and opportunities of the operation.
You and your team may have assumptions on how the procedures are performed but it is precisely for this reason that you are going to the Gemba - to see it for yourselves. By removing assumptions and asking potentially obvious questions, you are enabling team members and employees to provide added clarity.
Although questions will arise naturally during the walk, it is a good idea to prepare questions beforehand. Take some time to think about the process and write down any key questions that add value to the operation. You don’t have to ask all of them, but having prepared questions can help you stay on track.
Everyone should understand that this is not an employee evaluation or an audit, it is a process observation. An audit searches for compliance with existing standards while a Gemba Walk is searching for ways to improve process efficiency and mitigate waste.
For this reason, a Gemba Walk should not surprise employees. On the contrary, it is good to inform and involve the employees so they can also prepare for any questions you or your team may have.
The purpose of a Gemba Walk is to gain a real understanding of the process, obstacles, and areas that can be improved. Employees should answer your questions with honest in-depth explanations and not necessarily with the “correct” answers. You want real responses from people so that you can identify any process hindrances or opportunities for improvement.
If the employees understand that this is strictly a process review, they are more likely to be forthcoming about process inefficiencies and ways to improve the current standards.
Along the same vein, it is important to remember that this is about observation and not yet about implementing process change. All process changes should be implemented after the walk.
It may be tempting to see an issue and deal with it right away or even to dive into task management, but try to limit this as much as possible. If the situation is not dire, then it is best to simply observe, ask questions, and document as much as you can.
That being said, here are a few tips and methods to record your Gemba Walk.
Document as much as you can.
Use VKS software to structure your Gemba Walk.
Take photos or videos.
Draw a diagram.
Read More: What Is A Digital Quality Checklist?
A Gemba Walk is not a one time deal. It is a Lean management philosophy that should be performed regularly. This will help you and your management team keep a firm footing in the realities of where value-creating work is performed and aid in a culture of continuous improvement.
How often you perform a Gemba Walk is up to you and is highly dependent on how many processes are running in your business. If a new process has been implemented or an old process has been modified, having an active presence will be helpful until you have all the information you need for that time.
Just as important as “how often” is the question of “when”. Manufacturing operations can change depending on the period in the week or even the time of day. If Gemba Walks are only performed on Thursdays at 2:00 pm, you will not gain a complete perspective of the whole operation. If there is a night or evening shift, then it will be useful to incorporate those times into your regular Gemba Walk plan.
By scheduling at different points in the week or day, you will be able to put together a more complete picture of the operation. This will help incorporate more employees into the Gemba Walk, giving you greater feedback and knowledge.
Once the Gemba Walk has been performed and new initiatives have been planned, it is helpful to return to the Gemba and connect with key players on the shop floor. They’ll want to know the results and observations as much as you do since this will have a direct impact on their procedures.
Even if no changes will be made in the immediate future, letting employees know the outcome of the Gemba Walk will nonetheless enhance their perspective. Adding to that, their feedback will enhance your perspective as well.
Communicating with employees and keeping them up to date is essential. By using our visual work instruction software, implementing improvements while keeping employees in the loop is made easy. By incorporating digital work instructions into your company process, no one is left behind when changes are applied. If new changes have been made to an existing Guidebook, then a notification will open to inform employees of the changes.
Read More: VKS: The SOP Maker
A great place to start your Gemba Walk experience is by reviewing how your employees receive work orders and access work instructions and SOPs. The importance of accurate, clear, and easily accessible documentation cannot be overstated.
Without properly implementing and maintaining work instructions and standard operating procedures (SOPs), employees can stray away from the required standard. If your current work instruction infrastructure is out of date or not easy to use, your facility will likely experience process dissonance. This inevitably leads to inconsistency and poor quality.
A well-executed Gemba Walk can help in this situation by indicating the reason for a process breakdown and identifying why work instructions are not being used.
The causes often fall within a few common failures. They are:
Outdated work instructions and SOPs: If work instructions and SOPs are not updated with each process change, then they can’t be followed.
The current work instructions are not easily accessible: Work instructions need to be easy to find and easy to read. If the work instructions are not visually oriented or have excessive text, this impedes their readability while operators perform the work.
Too many separate applications: Providing an easy all-in-one platform will facilitate a genuine desire to use and follow work instructions and SOPs.
These process obstacles can be remedied by implementing effective work instruction software. Below is a brief list of the significant benefits that digital work instructions bring to any organization.
Shared Knowledge: Tribal knowledge is effectively shared among the workforce. This mitigates a company’s strict reliance on experienced employees. All operators have easy access to the same documented knowledge and visual work instructions.
Training: Supports training initiatives by providing real-time learning when and where the work is being performed.
Consistency and Quality: Ensures that consistent processes, methods, and standard operating procedures are applied to the operation and value stream. This further mitigates rejects and rework costs.
Verification of Use: Knowing that employees are using and following the work instructions is an effective management tool.
Continuous Improvement: VKS software provides the baseline for Kaizen, or continuous improvement efforts like Lean Six Sigma as well as being the best method for fast and comprehensive process updates and improvements.
Once you’ve implemented visual work instructions, do a Gemba walk and see the difference it makes.
Properly developed and deployed work instructions will drive positive impacts by improving productivity and providing a well-trained and prepared workforce. All of this culminates in a leaner and stronger company.
Leveraging a powerful leadership tool like the Gemba Walk gives companies the time to truly observe and reflect on areas of waste and find real opportunities for improvement.
With contributions from Shannon Bennett.
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