Often, the people doing an operational process think of the managers and head office teams as sat on their bottoms without really understanding reality. They think of the head office team as sitting in an “ivory tower”, unaware and disinterested of the real issues. However, this disconnect is bad for moral and bad for business. A Gemba walk is a way for head office staff to get back to reality. It’s a way to experience the actual situation. This way, you can genuinely understand the real issues as well as what will help most.

What is a Gemba Walk

Gemba comes from the Japanese for “the actual place”. Actually, it should translate as “Genba” but phonetically it uses an “m” instead. As a result, it’s commonly referred to as Gemba – so that’s how I’ll use it here too.

Essentially, Gemba is a principle from the lean methodology that says “go and see” something happening for real. I’m sure you already know that you can’t rely on a desktop analysis of reality. You need to go and see how the process really works.

A Gemba walk is your opportunity to do just this.

When should you do a Gemba walk?

Whenever you need to get in touch with the reality of the business. I’d say anytime is a good time for staying in touch with reality and doing a Gemba walk. In particular, it’s essential to do this ahead of a major transformation, else you risk transforming an operation which never exists.

Who else does Gemba walks?

There are plenty of examples of when other businesses have got major value from a Gemba

TV show “Undercover Boss” is this very concept. You can see how eye opening it is for executives and office workers to get back to the floor. Often, they leave with plenty of ideas for how they will transform the business.

Tesco CEO, Dave Lewis, insisted on his leadership teams doing this across when he took over the reigns at the UK Grocer. Tesco went on to continue their turnaround efforts with a positive impact.

Increasingly, forward thinking businesses are getting their teams back to the shop floor. They’re finding that using Gemba walks is helping to deliver the short term goals. Plus, it’s getting the biggest challenges out in the open as well as thinking about the longer term strategic goals.

How to Do a Gemba Walk

There are 4 key considerations when you want to carry out a Gemba walk:

1. Plan before you start

To ensure that you run a successful Gemba walk, you need to plan ahead of time. What are your objectives? What part of the process is it that you want to observe? Once you’ve finished, what is it that you want to have achieved and what do you want to walk away with?

Once you have planned out your aims and objectives, you need to set up the Gemba walk itself. Allow plenty of time (at least a week) and engage the leadership teams relevant to what you’re going to see. Explain to them what it is that you’re trying to and where you need their help.

Planning effectively will help you to run an effective Gemba walk and therefore, meeting your aims and objectives. As you’re planning, you may also want to read up about TIM WOOD and the 7 Wastes.

2. See reality, not a false performance

When you have someone watching over your shoulder, it’s easy to feel nervous. In turn, the process becomes an awkward step through the process, with the operator desperately trying to do things by the book.

This helps no-one. As the observer, you need to quickly build rapport with the operator. In turn, you will get the chance to see the actual process used day in, day out. This is when you really get to understand the status quo.

When you’re watching reality, you’ll see the real mistakes. You’ll see when confusion sets in. Also, you’ll see the shortcuts that are commonly used (but never admitted to!).

3. Ask questions

When you’re on a Gemba walk, it’s about understanding the process and procedures. Not just about observing. A key part of the activity will be asking questions. However, you also need to be considerate that the operator has a job to get done other than entertaining you!

As you’re observing the processes and procedures, remember to ask questions. Aim for open questions that needs the operator to give more than a one word answer. This will help build rapport – an essential step for ensuring that you see a real picture of life on the shop floor. Example questions that you could ask include: What is happening? Why now? Why are you doing that? Who helps you?

It can be helpful to play the fool a little here. Be naive. Ask why they are doing the steps even if you know how. Actually, your questions should help you appreciate the operator’s point of view and understanding rather than the official “text book” answer.

4. It’s about process and people

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the people are an equally critical part of the observation. In fact, maybe more important.

This is something that I first overlooked when I started doing Gemba walks. Instead, I was obsessive about the step by step process. But, what I missed was the emotional considerations that the staff were experiencing. I missed the opportunity to test understanding and their motivations. I was only seeing half of the picture.

The simple act of conversation is your key here. Also consider asking questions about their motivations and struggles.

Key actions to help you prepare for your next (or first) Gemba walk

I’d love to inspire you to take a Gemba walk. So, to help you on your way, here are some next steps for you to help plan.

  1. Set a key focus – what operational area will you focus on?
  2. Define your goals and objectives
  3. Build an agenda and schedule.
  4. Reach out to engage relevant people about our Gemba walk.

In summary

A Gemba walk is truly an opportunity to understand the actual operating model in use today. However, it’s also a process that is infrequently used by head office staff. Yes, people know that they should do it. Yes, they show interest and intrigue about making it happen. However, good intentions are sometimes left behind.

Don’t let this be you. Take action and start planning a Gemba walk today.

Do you have any questions to help you get started? Comment below and let me know your questions and comments.

project management expert Oliver BanksAbout the Author

Oliver Banks is an expert retail project and programme manager. He originally managed projects in the technology industry before moving to Tesco to deliver retail improvement. He is now an independent consultant, passionate about helping retailers to deliver projects to improve stores, distribution and head office operations. Oliver uses Gemba walks as a key tool to understand the status quo and validate the future state.


project management expert Oliver Banks

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