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Gemba Walks


  1. Introduction
  2. Gemba Walk Summary
  3. Gemba Walk Participants
  4. What a Gemba Walk is NOT
  5. The Benefits of a Gemba Walk
  6. The Psychological Benefits of a Gemba Walk
  7. The Practical Benefits of a Gemba Walk
  8. Benefit: Get the Manager Out on The Floor
  9. Benefit: Bring Together Critical Players to Quickly Solve Problems
  10. Benefit: Ensure the Metrics Are Valid
  11. Overcoming Pushback
  12. How Gemba Walks Fail


Most good managers tend to spend a large part of their day on the shop floor. They are out where the work is done (the "gemba" in Japanese parlance), seeing with their own eyes the problems that occur, listening to associates, and giving advice and direction to the team. The Gemba Walk process formalizes this on-the-floor time, and combines it with VisualMetrics to create a very powerful force that fosters continual improvement and alignment of objectives.

Gemba Walk Summary

A Gemba walk is a daily, scheduled time where the manager in a facility is out in the shop floor and publicly reviews the shop's performance as displayed on the Visual Metric boards. The manager walks through the shop, stopping at each Visual Metric board to review the current results. A lower-level manager (or better yet, an hourly associate) presents the data to the manager, who can then praise good performance and ask questions about problems which prevented good performance. The manager can also give direction and suggestions to the operating associates.

The Gemba Walk is a very quick process. The total time spent at any one Visual Metric board should not exceed 10 - 15 minutes. If there are issues that need more discussion and review, then other, more traditional systems such as production meetings should still be used for them.

Gemba Walks are often done in a "layered" manner. At the lowest layer, the Department Manager does a daily walk, and an hourly associate presents the data. At these daily walks, it is common for the local maintenance mechanics, engineers, and QC technicians to participate.

As the results are being reviewed and discussed, maintenance & engineering associates can discuss their plans to provide resolutions for technical problems. Obviously, you can't have a full-blown production meeting on the floor, but you can usually solve many simple problems that otherwise would take numerous eMails or meetings to resolve.

Moving up a layer, the Site-wide Operations Manager may do a weekly walk, visiting the same Visual Metric Boards, but in this case, the Department Manager (along with his staff) will present the information. Just like the daily Gemba Walk, the senior manager provides praise and guidance, only in this case he gives that praise primarily to the Department Manager and his staff.

On these higher level walks, it often appropriate to include representatives from HR, Project Engineering, New Product Development, and Sales & Marketing. Finally, at the highest layer, the Divisional Vice President follows the same Gemba Walk process when he is on site during routine monthly visits. (For the highest layer Gemba Walk, the best practice is to have the lowest level hourly associate directly present to the highest level Vice President. The positive emotional impact of having an hourly associate explain performance and issues to the CEO or VP cannot be overstated.)

In all cases, these reviews are done publicly. Everybody sees that the operation is measured by a clear set of metrics, and that all levels of management are interested in the results of those measures. Also, anyone may ask a question or offer information. The only caveat is that the total time at any one Visual Metric station should not exceed 15 minutes. No matter who is present, a Gemba Walk is not meant to be an all-day affair.

Gemba Walk Participants

Gemba Walk Level Who Presents the Data Who Provides Guidance and Feedback Frequency of Walk Who Else is Present
Lowest Level Hourly associate or Team Leader Department Manager Daily Maintenance,Engineering Technicians,QC Technicians,Other hourly associates
Medium Level Department Manager (Alternate: Team Leader or hourly associate) Facility Plant Manager Weekly Engineering Manager, Quality Manager, Project Engineers, HR Manager, Supply Chain Manager, Production Scheduler
High Level Hourly associate or Team Leader Vice President of Operations Monthly Plant Manager's staff, Sales Manager, Controller
NOTE: This is the minimum attendance for a Gemba Walk. Anyone is always welcome to participate, and managers are always encouraged to spend more time out on the floor, reviewing data, asking questions, and giving advice. The Gemba Walk is simply a formalized "Standard Work" way of doing this. By all means, please resist the black hole of eMail and spend as much time at "gemba" as possible! You are much more valuable (and effective!) on the shop floor than you are barricaded into our office with a phone on one ear, your left hand holding your smartphone, and you right hand typing on your computer keyboard.

What a Gemba Walk is NOT

A Gemba Walk does not replace the normal Production Meeting, although it may be able to replace a large portion of it. A Gemba Walk is a great place to solve small problems, but major issues that require discussion and evaluation of detailed data will still best be served by having a traditional meeting.

A Gemba Walk is also not the time to harshly criticize a manager. We prefer the Gemba Walk to be a positive event, so constructive criticisms directed at an individual are usually best done in private. (This doesn't mean that we can't offer constructive criticism in the Gemba Walk, just that we always want to protect the egos of all the participants.)

The Benefits a Gemba Walk

Gemba Walks benefit an organization in two fundamental ways. One of them is practical, the other purely psychological. These are:
  1. They allow managers to quickly identify problems on floor, and help to very quickly solve the myriad of small problems that plague all operations.
  2. They foster alignment of goals by demonstrating the importance of the metrics to all the associates.

The Psychological Benefits a Gemba Walk

Let's talk psychology for a moment, and then we'll spend more time delving into the practical benefits of the Gemba Walk process.

One of the critical aspects of a proper Gemba Walk is that the reviews are done very publicly. All the associates see the managers walking the shop floor. The managers are therefore available to all the associates to be able to answer questions, share concerns, or simply say hello. The associates also see that the manager truly cares about the metrics presented on the Visual Metric boards. The numbers therefore are not some abstract measure created by distant accountants; they are critical measures of how well the operation is performing. By publicly demonstrating his interest in these results, the manager is implicitly demonstrating that they are important.

Many companies struggle with keeping all of their associates (hourly and managerial) focused on the same common objectives. There are elaborate procedures (often known by the Japanese phrase "Hoshin Kanri" or the just as obtusely named "Policy Function Deployment") that are used to establish this commonality. The Gemba Walk process can almost automatically create this uniformity simply by having the managers publicly review and respond to the data on a Visual Metric Board. (Of course, it goes without saying that the Visual Metric Board must be measuring things the overall organization feels is important to achieving its objectives.)

The Practical Benefits a Gemba Walk

The Gemba Walk process has many practical benefits. We will go into detail about each one, but first let's summarize them. The benefits are:
  1. They force the manager out of his office, away from his eMail, and out to the shop where the real action (the "gemba") is. The manager will see problems with his own eyes, hear about problems directly from the operating associates, and can take immediate action to help correct them.
  2. They bring together the critical players in a shop (operators, managers, maintenance, engineers, etc) so that it is easier to take quick actions to solve small, but nagging, problems. Each person hears the same description of the problems, and each can immediately offer their expertise to help resolve them. The speed with which problems can be resolved can be dramatically increased compared to traditional problem solving.
  3. They help ensure the metrics used to evaluate the operation are correctly aligned with the measures used to evaluate the entire operation.

Let's discuss each of these in more detail.

Benefit: Get the Manager Out on The Floor

Every manager will tell you that he spends almost 100% of his time on the shop floor… except for the time needed for meetings, eMail, meetings, trips, meetings, phone calls, meetings, eMail, meetings to plan future meetings, eMails to discuss and prepare for upcoming meetings, and meetings to discuss eMails that were written as a result of meetings, etc, etc, etc…

In reality, managers find that there is a giant black hole pulling them away from the shop floor and into their offices. They are chained to their computers by eMail! How often have you heard someone joking about a Plant Manager that can't find the Milling Department because he's never been on the floor? (It's a common complaint, but the joke is not very funny.)

Personal Anecdote: As a plant manager, I used to get over 100 eMails per day. I estimate that I spent an average of 2 minutes per eMail just to read them. That meant that over 3 hours per day was spent simply reading those eMails. Of course, many of these eMails would require investigation, planning, and thoughtful replies. No wonder a Plant Manger has to work so many hours!

Also, this demonstrates how powerfully our work systems tend to pull managers away from the shop floor and into their offices where they are isolated from the "gemba".

By formally scheduling a regular time for the manager to be out on the floor (entered as a high priority item on his Outlook calendar) he will have a much better chance of actually getting away from his office. [Some companies designate Gemba Walk time as "sacred time". If this is scheduled throughout the organization at a specific designated time, then even the CEO will learn not to schedule meetings during this sacred time.]

Benefit: Bring Together Critical Players to Quickly Solve Problems

It's always hard to get all the critical players together at the same time to review and discuss a problem. We try to do this with regular Production or Staff meetings, but this has a few drawbacks. For one thing, the meetings happen when the information needed is not readily available (as it is on the Visual Metric Board).

During a Gemba walk, all the people are together, they all hear about the problem at the same time, and see the same data. They are therefore all in a position to quickly decide on a course of action, and to initiate that action.

This doesn't work for complex problems, but it does work very well for the most common, nagging problems that are easily solved with a little ingenuity and some good follow-through.

Benefit: Ensure the Metrics Are Valid

By having everyone look at the same metrics, we ensure that those are the metrics we need to be measuring in order to achieve the organization's overall objectives.

For example, if the organization has established a goal to lower scrap costs, but the Visual Metric Board is devoted solely to Productivity and Schedule Attainment, this should be very readily apparent. The manager, who just got beaten up by the VP because scrap costs were 0.1% over budget, will naturally want to know the scrap percentage in each department. If that data is not on the Visual metric board, the manager will then get it added to the board pretty darn quickly.

Overcoming Pushback

In my experience, Plant Managers who have not already bought into the Gemba Walk process will strongly resist being forced to do them. (I think this is mostly a "control" issue. That's why the Gemba Walk process works best when strongly supported by senior management.) Their objections usually consist of one of the following:
  1. "But I'm already out of the floor all the time anyway"

    If so, then a formalized Gemba Walk shouldn't cause them any difficulty. Let's simply formalize what they do now. Pick a single time of day, block out that time on their calendar, invite the supervisors and engineers to this brief period, and they're home free!

    Managers love to force hourly associates to do their jobs in a "standard" way. Why not apply the same standard work discipline to the management staff?

  2. "We already have a daily production meeting. This will mean we will talk about the same issues all over again."

    A Gemba Walk does have the potential to duplicate a production meeting. The solution is to shorten the existing meeting to focus solely on things that are not applicable to quick discussion on the shop floor. There may be a small amount of overlap, but a well-disciplined production meeting will not duplicate the Gemba Walk very much.

    Maybe the daily production meeting can be reduced from 5 days per week to only 2.

  3. "I'm very busy. I don't have time to do a Gemba Walk every day."

    Hmmmm. Then how do you know what the heck is going on in your factory? Also, since you're out on the floor all the time [see Item #1], how come you have time for that but not this?

    Low level Gemba Walks should happen daily. Higher level walks, by VPs, may happen less often.

  4. "It's too loud on the shop floor to hear anything. We need to meet where we can hear each other."

    This can be a real problem. I've solved it in very loud environments by purchasing a hand-held PA system. They are battery powered, fairly lightweight, and usually cost less than $100. That's a pretty small investment considering the benefits you get.

  5. "My people already know what they have to do. They see the Visual Metric Board every day. They don't need me to look at it. Besides, I get the same data eMailed to me every day."

    You obviously don't buy into the psychological impact of the Lean style of leadership. Managers demonstrate what is important by how they spend their time. If you don't believe this, then nothing I say will change your mind. Good luck!

  6. "I already have a fantastic communication system of voicemails, which I listen to while driving in to work. The communication presented in the Gemba Walk is all a duplicate of what I already know."

    This is the strongest of all the pushback arguments I've heard. We don't want to destroy what is already working, but perhaps we can make it better.

    Three problems with voicemails are:

    1. None of the hourly associates get the voicemails, so they don't know what's going on or what issues are being discussed.

    2. Nobody is around to discuss the problem or offer solutions. Everybody hears the message when they are alone, and nobody has the ability to communicate with other team members until after the voicemail is completed. Then they have to remember all the details and contact each team member individually.

    3. Nobody sees the manager when he gets the report. They don't pick up on his distress at bad news, or his joy at good news. We lose the entire psychological impact of everyone publicly getting the information at one time.

    In this case, I've advised that we pare back the voicemails to bare essentials, such as really good or bad news. This reduces the load on the alternate communication stream and reduces duplicate effort, but still gets us the full benefit of the Gemba Walk process.

How Gemba Walks Fail

Like all Lean procedures, Gemba walks can fail miserably. When they do fail, they make the entire environment worse than it was previously. In my humble opinion, the worst mistake a management team can make is to institute a procedure, and then allow it to slowly fade away. We've all seen this happen, and probably have allowed this to happen many more times than we care to remember.

Lean organizations do "standard work" in almost every thing they do. Unfortunately, the natural inclination of people and organizations is to slowly stop adhering to the standards (the 2nd law of thermodynamics works with a vengeance in industrial settings). It takes a tremendous amount of personal energy and discipline to overcome this natural tendency to decay into chaos.

How does the Gemba Walk fail? Here are the usual ways:

  1. Sacred Time isn't so Sacred

    The time scheduled for Gemba Walks should be sacred, with everybody who's supposed to be there participating, unless they're either recuperating in the hospital or on vacation.

    In my experience, the worst offenders against "sacred time" are senior managers, who will just as quickly chastise you for missing their meeting as demand to know why you're not always doing your Gemba Walks.

  2. Those #$%#!@ Smartphones!

    We all do it. We can't keep our hands off the smartphones. We check our eMail every ten seconds, and take every call that comes, no matter what we are doing.

    What kind of message does the manager send to the rest of the team when he buries his head in the smartphone while the hourly associate is trying to explain what went wrong the day before? How can he understand what is going on, and give advice and direction if he's replying to an eMail?

    The solution is to turn the darn thing off while on the walk. Better yet, leave it on your desk. You may not realize it, but most smartphones can automatically take a message.

    You'll get back to the boss within the hour. I think he can wait.

  3. The Slow Fade-Out

    This is similar to item #1 above. People who are scheduled to be present on the Gemba Walks have other pressing business which keeps them away occasionally. Nobody says anything about their absence, so these conflicts occur more and more often. Eventually, the person comes so rarely that nobody on the Gemba walk even remembers if they ever participated.

    To overcome this, the local Lean Champion has to constantly contact the missing people and gently remind them about how critical they are to fixing the problems.

    If you find that your presence on the Gemba Walk is not adding value, then say so. Have yourself removed from the schedule. But don't simply stop going.