Printing Lean

Gemba walks

By Tom Southworth | March 8, 2012

Let me start off by asking you a question. Have you heard of the word gemba before and, if you have, what does gemba mean to you? 

Gemba is a Japanese word that means the real or actual place. Walking the gemba, the real or actual place, is a key component of the Toyota Production System and of any Lean organization for that matter.

The purpose of walking the actual place is to identify problems, non-value added activities or waste, through a deliberate and focused observation of a particular area and to help resolve issues that are causing this waste.

A gemba walk provides the means for an organization’s leadership:
  To demonstrate commitment to Lean
  To engage the workforce in a discussion of the importance of Lean to them as individuals and to the organization
  To gain a better understanding of how, where and when Lean or continuous improvement efforts are succeeding and where they are not
  To establish a standardized review process of continuous improvement projects
  And to improve the likelihood that these improvements will be sustained

Who performs a gemba walk? Senior leadership. 

A gemba walk is a tool, or device if you want to call it that, that senior management or executives, especially “C” level executives, use to take a deep dive into their respective organizations in order to understand what really happens day to day and to guide corrective actions.

It’s not MBWA
A gemba walk is not Management by Walking Around. Management by Walking Around is often mistaken for a gemba walk but Management by Walking Around usually ends up just being management, walking around.

Many well intentioned managers and executives use what they refer to as Management by Walking Around in an honest and sincere attempt to stay “connected” with front line workers. 
Unfortunately, though, most executives don’t know how to make the best possible use of this time spent walking around and this because they don’t know what the purpose of this walk really is.

A gemba walk is the C in the Plan Do Check Act problem solving model. It’s going out and checking to make sure that standards are being followed, that problems are getting corrected, that processes are working the way they were intended to and, if not, to find out why.

Front line team members are usually concerned whenever a senior executive shows up and starts asking questions, but can we blame them for feeling this way? What kinds of questions are usually asked? Oftentimes it’s “Who did this?” And because of the way that that question is asked and the way it’s perceived it’s often considered to be a threat rather than an opportunity to start making improvements.  

During a gemba walk the questions asked should not be the typical “How are things today,” but, rather, “Why is this condition happening”?  You’re looking to challenge team members by getting them to think about what’s happening and why and how it could be corrected. 

Another question would be to ask, “Who owns this value stream?” Most times the answer is no one. If no one owns the value stream then no one owns the responsibility for improving the processes in that value stream.

Where to look?
There will be many opportunities to find a problem if one knows where to look. You may observe a process being done in as many different ways as there are people who are performing that process. You need to ask why. Why is it being done differently by each person? Why is there no standard work sequence? You may see evidence of poor inventory management. You may see people searching for materials, equipment, tools or information and you need to ask why these items are not readily available to them.

You may see equipment that is in less than ideal condition and you need to ask why. Why is the equipment not being well maintained? You may see materials, or even customers, waiting and waiting and waiting. Why are they waiting? What’s preventing them from moving through the value stream?

What metrics are visible in the gemba and how do the team members in that value stream know whether or not those metrics, and more importantly customer needs, are being met? Do team members even know what those customer needs are? If not, how can they be expected, then, to meet those needs?

Ask, listen and learn
You need to do more than to just ask questions, though. You need to learn why problems are occurring, and you do this by listening to the people who have to experience and deal with these problems every day. They’ll have the answers that you’re looking for and when you ask, make sure that you are showing respect for that person and for the efforts that they’re making to accomplish their job in spite of the waste, in spite of all the problems that you’re seeing. These team members are doing their best to get the job done despite the obstacles that are in their way. Your job is not to criticize but to engage them in removing these obstacles.

To get at the root causes of these problems and conditions you need to be at the actual place, the gemba. You can’t observe a condition and begin to understand it unless you are actually there to observe it as it occurs. It’s very easy to pass judgment, but you cannot begin to understand why your employees are doing what they are doing unless you’re experiencing the pain for yourself and unless you understand why that pain is occurring. 

To understand the problem you must first go to the actual place where it’s happening, see it happening and experience the effects, the pain, yourself. You must get the facts, all of the facts, and not make assumptions. You get those facts by asking challenging questions to the team members who are working in the actual place. Doing so will help you to grasp the entire situation, not just one small subset or snapshot of it, and this will enable you to make better, more informed decisions.

Understanding what’s happening, where it’s happening, and why it’s happening will help you, along with those who are working in the gemba, to generate countermeasures and corrective actions to eliminate the problems that you’ve observed. You’ll need to guide these countermeasures through continuous follow up, through first hand observation, by returning to the gemba often as part of your continual PDCA problem solving efforts.

Go to the gemba and check that these countermeasures and corrective actions are effective and, if not, use the information you’ve learned to generate new countermeasures and return to the gemba often to continually monitor and improve the value stream.

Drive continuous improvement
Go see, ask why, show respect, and follow up. Use the gemba walk as your standard work to observe, to understand, to learn and to improve your organization’s systems and processes in a continual effort to eliminate waste, improve flow, and drive a culture of continuous improvement.

Tom Southworth is a Lean consultant with CONNSTEP, Connecticut’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership. He is a Senior Member of ASQ, an ASQ Certified Manager of Quality & Organizational Excellence, a senior member of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, SME Lean Bronze Certified, and a certified TWI Job Instruction and Job Relations Trainer. He can be reached by email at