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What is a Gemba Walk

The Gemba walk is an exercise performed to closely observe and understand business processes and activities as they actually happen – as opposed to how the activities are ‘understood’ to work or ‘designed’ to work. The term Gemba is a Japanese word which translates to ‘the real place where value is created’. As a business concept, Gemba is most often used in lean process management, but has broad application in a variety of business contexts. Gemba can be utilized on the factory floor in a manufacturing company, the wards and operating room in a hospital, the kitchen of a restaurant, the tech team’s floor in a SaaS company, or the office of an accounting company. Gemba walk literally means taking a physical walk around the work floor of the company. This activity can be beneficial to both staff and management of an organization as it enables business leaders  to engage with employees, listen to challenges they face, observe and understand the process, identify sources of waste or opportunities for improvement in their daily operations and improve collaboration.

The Gemba Walk concept was developed by Taiichi Ohno, an executive at Toyota who is also credited as the father of Just-in-Time production. The Toyota Company is acknowledged for growing the lean concept, a tool created as a solution to challenges that the Japanese manufacturers faced after World War II. The concept which embodies a series of tools and techniques, have come to be well known and studied worldwide. The Gemba Walk is an essential part of lean management as it focuses on the place where all the major actions in a production process happen.

What Gemba Walk is not

First thing to remember; a Gemba walk should never be a corrective exercise. It is not the time to find fault with employees or confirm assumptions. Embarking on the walk with biased assumptions of what you think the problem or the cause of the problem is could blind you from discovering the root cause. Instead respect everyone and do not disregard their feedback. Secondly, it is not the time for quick fixes. Avoid giving into the temptation to suggest solutions immediately. Adhere strictly to just observing and recording your observations.

The Relevance of Gemba Walk to Sustainable Businesses

Let us examine a scenario where the management of a cafe seeks ways to make the store zero waste; they assume that the most appropriate initiative is to immediately install a food waste collection system and direct all staff to dump food waste separately into special bins to be provided. Before implementing this new policy however, the management is advised to ascertain that this approach indeed deserves the highest priority by taking time to observe what happens in their gemba (the kitchen of the cafe).

Following the advice, the store manager decides to dedicate a day to observe baristas and their work process from opening to closing. From her perspective, the manager observed that food inventory – which usually happens at closing in preparation for the next day – was being done without paying attention to the rate of demand. High and low demand items were pulled from the freezer in equal amounts and so by midday, the store had run out of popular items and were unable to meet customer demand while most of the items ordered less frequently had to be thrown away upon expiration.. She also noticed the high frequency of wrongly processed orders that resulted in food waste. And this was because new hires were assigned to process orders, and often made mistakes since they were still struggling to learn the names and recipes of the menu. The problem was also compounded by the fact that communication paths became distorted during rush hours or when there were many baristas working on the floor at a time. Other waste streams she noticed were coffee grounds and tea bags.

From this scenario we can easily observe that  installing a separate bin for food waste (while being a good idea) would only address disposal of food waste and not its prevention. By taking the Gemba walk, the opportunity to prevent food waste by stocking lesser portions of unpopular items was revealed, leaving them to deal with a lesser amount of waste (the unavoidable coffee grounds and tea bags which are easily compostable). It helped the manager realize they could increase customer satisfaction by stocking adequate amounts of food items in demand. She also identified the need to reorganize staff duties and training in order to reduce food waste that occurred due to wrong orders.

From the example stated above, it can be argued that the strongest case for Gemba walk as a sustainability practice is perhaps the fact that business leaders, administrators and staff of companies can actually see a full picture of how the business operates, locate where opportunities for improvement genuinely exist, and identify the root cause of a problem rather than relying on assumed perceptions. Gemba walks enable leaders and employees to avoid making quick fixes that never address the underlying cause of a problem. For sustainability, leaders can confidently implement sustainability initiatives because it truly fits the purpose  and not just because it feels good or right to do so.

How to Make The Gemba Walk a Fruitful Exercise

1. Determine the Purpose and Scope before the walk

A Gemba walk should be structured and goal oriented. Before starting the walk, plan ahead on the extent the work will cover, prepare a theme and propose how long the exercise should take. A theme could focus on waste reduction, productivity or cost efficiency. Preparing a theme  and defining a scope will eliminate distractions and keep you focused.

2. Prepare a team and keep it small

The team should understand what a Gemba walk is and the purpose it serves. Ensure your team is diverse, including those who are familiar and unfamiliar with the process. Sometimes people who are less familiar with a process may display more curiosity and ask thoughtful or unique questions.

3. Focus on the process not the people

Always keep in mind that the Gemba walk is not a time to evaluate the performance of your team. Focusing on people’s activities and abilities could bring forth resistance. Ensure to focus on how the actual process is adding or reducing value. Workers should be pre-informed about what is to happen so the whole exercise doesn’t look like a surprise floor supervision. The walk should promote collaboration.

4. Employ frameworks to keep clear goals

In the Ultimate guide to a Gemba Walk, Tulip highlights how applying theoretical frameworks used in lean manufacturing can guide observation during a Gemba Walk. They include 6Ms of production as an efficiency framework; Wastes – also referred to as Mudas of lean manufacturing, Design thinking and the 5 Whys. Adopting any of these frameworks during a Gemba walk can help prevent ambiguous or obscure goals that may lead to implementing quick fixes that may eventually fail.

5. Keep and Track Data

Record everything you notice and do not make gemba walk a one-time event.  Remember, try not to proffer solutions immediately on site, save all analysis for later.

6. Analyse and convert your data to usable format

Analyse, standardize and summarize data collected into visual or usable formats that provides insight into problems.

7. Follow Up

Never go silent and keep your employee or team wondering what happens next. Make your team aware of actions to be taken and the reasons why they are important. If perhaps nothing significant was found, still ensure to communicate what was learnt or observed from the process. By doing so, employees will not conclude that the gemba walk is just another supervisory event.

Lean has progressed from just a collection of tools and techniques and is now widely recognized as a fundamental business philosophy. A closer look into the lean philosophy reveals how similar and applicable its concepts are to sustainability. Just as the sustainability principles emphasizes the triple bottom line – a balance between people, profit and the planet – lean is based on the philosophy of creating value from the customer’s (people) view point, continuous improvement of processes and elimination of every wasteful use of resources. Doing a Gemba walk can help leaders prioritize what sustainability initiatives they need to focus on and help them evaluate results after implementation.

About the Author

Tosin Folorunso

GBB Green Ambassador

Oluwatosin (Tosin) Folorunso is a Master’s student of Global Sustainability, an entrepreneur, and content writer for Green Business Bureau. She is passionate about finding innovative methods to solving solid waste pollution with a focus on plastic and textile waste. She has performed various research on small-scale plastic recycling and founded a sustainable fashion brand (Sophie Meraki) that upcycles textile waste into new apparel, accessories and jewelry. Tosin enjoys taking long walks, photography and learning new languages (currently French and Korean).

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