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A Gemba walk is a shop floor tour that executives undertake to observe the practical realities of production cycles. It is a hands-on approach to understanding the flow of value added.
Japanese business term meaning “the place where it happens”
Shop floor tour identifying current & potential flows of value
Follows a single product type from start to finish through production
Fundamental to lean manufacturing
A Gemba walk can take as little as 45 minutes, but ideally can take hours or even a full day. Some experienced lean manufacturers will prefer to independently observe each area of their shop floor to make sure they take the time necessary to understand the full extent of their production cycles.
A Gemba walk might seem easy (and your observation should feel effortless!) but there are several things that are crucial to remember, and others you should never do.
There are three main elements of a Gemba walk, no matter how long or short it is:
The more comprehensive Japanese term for this strategy is “genchi genbutsu,” which means “go and see the place where it happens”. Roughly translated, it refers to the importance of actually observing the literal production process in order to have a physical understanding of the steps involved.
The 5 Whys are another Japanese approach to pursuing lean productivity. In order, they are:
Remember that the best way to gain insight into your production processes is to interrupt the natural workflow as little as possible. This is not a time to admonish individual employees, or try to catch workers slacking or unaware. You gain the most useful information through observation, especially when everyone is respectful and trusting in each other’s skills and hard work.
Some Gemba walks are not about value-added productivity, but about value-added through safety and health measures. In safety Gemba walks, instead of tracking a single product through the production cycle, executives may follow the combined use of certain machinery over a full shift to monitor responsible equipment usage. A safety walk might also involve participating in an emergency drill, where leaders can identify difficulties in powering down or exiting dangerous areas.
It may be more difficult to quantify than product added-value, but safety added-value is just as critical to smooth and healthy operations.
The global pandemic altered a lot of in-person SOPs, including Gemba walks. One of the ways some companies adapted to the widespread shift to remote work was to conduct virtual Gemba walks. These can be aided by connected technologies that allow executives to literally “follow” employees throughout the shop floor. Alternatively, employees can share their screens with supervisors and be observed across an internet connection.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t a “typical” Gemba walk, but there are some pretty famous examples of good Gemba walks that are on television.
Take Undercover Boss, the television show where a CEO of a large company is disguised and hired in an entry-level position – stocking inventory, delivery driving, or maintenance, for example. They receive direction and insight from more experienced workers in the same role, including any unforeseen difficulties that executives might not realize when mapping production cycles. Take note that the undercover bosses only reveal their fixes to found issues after the Gemba walk, so that their whole focus during their mission is observation and questioning.
Another popular manufacturing show, How It’s Made, isn’t a Gemba walk per se, but takes the audience on a virtual tour of a factory production cycle for a specific product. You can practice observing and writing down questions about unfamiliar processes or potential bottlenecks throughout an episode.
In Japanese, “Gemba” is derived from the word “gembutsu”, which means “the place where it happens” or “the actual place”. In a factory, Gemba refers to the shop floor, where products are made and assembled.
Your shop floor might not be so straightforward, however. If you’re a writer, maybe there’s one comfy spot near a window where you write most of your work. If you’re a weightlifter, maybe it’s your favorite gym. Maybe you’re still in manufacturing, but your Gemba isn’t a single factory space with a traditional layout.
Whatever your Gemba is, take note of your work space, including your supplies, your approach, and things that become essential to your process.
For example, maybe your writing spot could use a side table with space to put your coffee so your elbow doesn’t knock things over. Maybe that favorite gym is packed with people weightlifting in the evenings, so you schedule your workouts in the mornings.
It all boils down to this: what makes your workspace more productive?
The purpose of a Gemba walk is not to rush through the production lifecycle as quickly as possible in order to maximize output.
This is the wrong mindset.
Aside from speaking with shop floor employees about the challenges and productivity opportunities they see, a Gemba walk should be slow, and methodical. If something along the way seems confusing or unoptimized, don’t get frustrated with employees. Instead, take note of why it seems confusing – perhaps this is a tricky spot that can be streamlined later by reassessing workstations or schedules.
Observation is key, and the more you look, the more you learn.
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