Articles: Make Gemba Walks Personal!

As we enter the second quarter of what has been a tumultuous 2018, let’s pause and think about the tools we may need to prepare to win in 2020…  This post may be of interest to the folks in Waterloo – and for all others – looking at the effectiveness of Gemba Walks (GWs – the walks along the paths through one’s operations where the real customer-value is added).   Unfortunately, many ‘Gemba Walkers’ overlook some of GW’s greatest value – such as getting to know their people/value-adders’ and what they do; know; and need to be more successful.  Done right, it’s a solid win-win for all!  Read on thoughtfully.  Gemba Walks are incredibly valuable – and they work.

Seeing & Walking Your Flow

For many, the perspectives they see form the perceptions they act upon!  GWs work well with the belief that – “You can’t fix what you can’t see!”   It’s a good start to seeing the process before you.  Walks can be of any size – pick a beginning and an end and just start walking – but with deadly intent and a process in mind.  They visually reveal weaknesses in the simplest process flows or when applied to a company’s ultimate challenge of transformation itself into a waste-free, Horizontal Customer-Value-Stream Flow (HVSF) that can deliver a river of customer value from suppliers to the customer.  It is the ultimate ‘Big Picture’.

Perhaps this is the year to take that hard look at what a single, Horizontal Value Stream Flow vision could mean – especially in terms of reduced wastes & costs and increased throughput velocity, quality, and competitiveness.  If this has merit – one quickly thinks of how to transform a firm’s workforce and operations to ‘make-it-so’.   People learn from each other.  And this year the top learning experience for lean practitioners  will occur at the 2018 Canadian Lean ‘Embracing Excellence Conference in Winnipeg June 4-7 where Gemba Walks will be discussed.  Check out the details at .

It is pretty easy to see the impact a Gemba Walk tool could have in helping to build a single Horizontal Value-Stream-Flow (HVSF) process into an operation and what it could mean to the competitive success of the organization.   The challenge for tomorrow, will be to increase the takt time further to enhance competitiveness, productivity and profitability.  GWs will become a big tool in your toolbox.

Take A Gemba Walk… because it’s hard to fix what you can’t see. 

The size of a Gemba Walk does not matter.  Jim Womack shared the example of a supermarket that was losing market share.  The advisor’s first step was to take their top four executives to the store’s Gemba. It was something that three of the four had never done. They began in reverse order from the checkout station.  As they walked they quickly saw waste — tons of it!  They were shocked. Periodically, the executives were reminded that what they were seeing was the outcome of their own decisions being implemented by earnest, struggling, well-meaning employees who were improperly led. Jim pointed out that LEAN has taught us that the plant shop floor is a reflection of management, and what the executives saw bore that out. The wake-up call worked.

One More Time: Understanding the Gemba

Gembas apply everywhere there is a flow of sequential customer-value-adding steps. It’s often referred to as that place where “the rubber hits the road”.  Walks can be taken from any selected beginning to a selected end and repeated until the full HVSF (Horizontal Value Stream Flow)  is understood.

In the illustration below, the colored units shown are topped with a yellow arrow indicating them as a potential silo of operation whose self-interest can impede the throughput flow.   As you look at the diagram, imagine how all the steps in the flow from left to right must move around and/or through every one of these silos to reach the customer.   Keep in mind that each silo or step in the process that does not add value is a candidate for change and removal.

A Key Point:  The operating priority measures running each Vertical ‘Silo’ above, must serve the needs and priorities of the Horizontal Value Stream’s needs & priorities because it is the only one that flows directly to the Customer.

The Following is One 25-Year Veteran’s Take on Gemba Walks

Robert (Bob) Kerr, is a man well known in the Consortium community in North America and Australia over the last two decades, for his pragmatic Lean advocacy. He has held leadership positions with the Giffels Group and led the LEAN transformation of two international manufacturing companies.

It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of Gemba Walks only look for wastes!   Which means that there is only 10 per cent left for other very critical issues – such as – support for the people who generate the results in the Gemba!

This unfortunate consideration leaves little time for getting to know the value-adders as people – and for learning what they know, what they need, what problems they have, etc.   It is a huge loss of valuable discussion  time with them about how management can help and better support them!  Bob Kerr’s ‘secret sauce’ that follows will provide useful insights including a philosophy he holds that Those who do the jobs know how to do them better, and supporting them can yield high value“.

Jack Welch agrees, and puts the value of supporting the ‘Gemba people’ very nicely when he says:  “We know where most of the creativity, the innovation, the stuff that drives productivity lies-in the minds of those closest to the work. It’s been there in front of our noses all along while we’ve been running around chasing robots and reading books on how to become Japanese-or at least manage like them.”

Winners see the competitive value of continuously increasing the flow of value to the customer – and do it by harvesting the innovation and continuous improvement contributions of everyone.  In Bob Kerr’s view,  “Gemba walks are absolutely necessary and extremely valuable — but I do think there is an unfortunate interpretation problem currently holding many back from getting the full value.”

Many experts talk eagerly about ‘going on Gemba Walks’ to gather data and see the wastes. While this makes good sense, Bob does not believe that this is the best use of a manager’s time.  Gemba walks take a different form for different levels of practitioners, managers, or leaders. This discussion focuses on the core value of the generic Gemba Walk – and that is “to listen and learn about the challenges value-adders face and how the company can better support them and their growth.”

He reiterates, “Gemba Walks are the right tool to better see the value stream flow and understand the work. But I just don’t think a senior manager’s time is best spent looking for wastes that he/she may be ill-equipped to understand – or even less equipped to eliminate once found. It is really not their role in the company.” 

Since leaders, by definition, are generators of followers, the purpose of their Gemba walk should first and foremost be to connect and engage with the people and provide them encouragement and support to ensure everything is moving forward with pride.  In short, it is critical to ensure Gemba value-adders have what they need to enable them, and the company, to succeed.  Especially with innovation becoming a significant element of winning!

In an ideal world -can leaders do both?

Bob is clear on this point. “Sure there are exceptions, but I just don’t think it’s a leader’s job to be expert in everything including defining and solving waste problems.  If that is the case, they have hired the wrong people to do the jobs or not taken the time to train them.  The company will suffer because valuable management talent is being diverted to operations issues.”

Bob highly recommends the book It’s Your Ship, by Captain Michael Abrashoff, in his keynote presentation at the 2008 AME International Conference in Toronto.  Commander Abrashoff shared his experience climbing down into the engine room not to look for wastes but to talk with the engineer.  This was something no captain of the SS Benfold  had ever done.  He purposefully went to ask how each sailor’s job was going and if he/she had all the tools and training they needed.  This true leader believed his mission was to learn how to make the sailor’s job easier by removing impediments to their success. He encouraged the sailors to tell him what the wastes in his area were – and who better to ask than the person performing the tasks?

This thinking applies in any hospital ward, manufacturing facility, or in any organization who wants to compete and win these days.  The sailor like any value-adder suddenly saw himself as a legitimate part of the ship because his captain had come down to see him. That seaman and his 310 shipmates transformed the USS Benfold into ‘The best damn ship in the Navy’ winning record competency awards that still stand today.  But this is not complicated thinking – but it does demand a will for leaders who want everyone to became engaged. If you have not read his book, Bob and your editor, personally recommend it to any leaders in manufacturing, healthcare or business.  Bob’s assertion is that, “There is value on every page.”

Bob Kerr’s Proven Perspective on Effective Gemba Walks

“I clearly see Gemba walks as a golden and credible means of connecting with people. It is a solid approach to building engagement, respect, trust and teamwork that generates true results in a spirit of innovation. My reason for a Gemba Walk, started 25 years ago when my president at Gould Shawmut, Earl Pearson, emphasized the need to see if people were happy;  did they have what they needed; and very importantly –  did they feel that they, and their jobs, were moving progressing with a sense of achievement.

From that day on, I never walked to the floor to detect problems and errors in setups — I went to help and support. I felt that if I tried to be the supreme problem-solver chances were very good I would be less welcome the next day as people would not be as open with issues and problem causes. I just asked questions. As Earl showed me, if there was something wrong — win-win results still came if one began by respectfully asking judgment-free questions. You were really helping people see and discover their own solutions.”

Bob’s philosophy is to leave the responsibility for process improvement in the hands of those assigned to it who are coached to competency. He is quick to point out that if there are skill weaknesses in one’s staff it is the responsibility of the leader to support their people and equip them with the tools and skills they need. From this, self-confidence and self-esteem will grow. However, he reminds us that the main job of any senior manager/leader is to connect with people and then provide them with the thinking and tools they need to succeed.

In Bob’s words, “I see my job as providing the right environment that will grow the right culture. Is that determining wastes? No, it is not, according to the standard seven LEAN wastes. Yes, my job is to understand the work for sure — but the process wastes are better known to my people than to me — this is ‘their ship.’”  The opportunity here is to build and grow people and not micro manage those responsible for the processes. Managers have more than enough work focusing on their own strategic and other problems.”

Get Over It!: No one can be all things to all people

Upon completion of Gemba Walks, some managers (the walkers) write a report that includes improvements to be considered by the staff in that area. Sending this report back to the team can have the effect of draining their self-esteem, pride and feeling of worth and accountability. No good leader wants this outcome for their team members.

Would it not be far better on a Gemba walk – to connect personally with each person and determine what help you can provide to enable him or her to do their jobs better? You empower people when you ask questions about their processes, operations and thinking, which makes them feel they are respected and knowledgeable. Use this method and you walk away knowing more than you did before the walk began.

Bob’s Secret Sauce — ‘The How’

Having seen Bob’s approach in action, here’s what has worked for him for over two decades.  You will not be surprised that like your well-practiced tools, his has combined his experiences with all aspects of the Gemba Walk.

He instantly responded to the ATJ request by instantly stating – “What I have found to work, is to always begin with your mind in a Go See (to learn) — Ask Why (to help) – and, a Show Respect (to build trust) mode – and never vary.

Make every sentence a question – such as:  Can you tell me what is happening here? Why are you doing this? When is that going to happen? What do you think we need to do? How can I help you? etc.   It is critical that we make our questions fit the situation and are positive, objective, and non-judgmental. So, put your Dragnet hat on (for those who remember Jack Webb – remember, he always asked for, just the facts ma’am, just the facts.)  As Bob puts it, “For too long we have been telling people what they need to do,  it’s an approach that robs good people of a piece of their dignity, sense of worth, and accountability — all of which we need desperately on our floors and in our offices.

When you ask people a question, without judgment, to gain information — they are inclined to feel more in control; they feel important; they feel valued — and most importantly, they feel needed as a part of the process. If you do this repeatedly, they begin to believe you are for real — and trust begins to grow.
With his approach comes an increase in morale and competence which is soon followed by increased achievement. It pays to remember Hertzberg’s research that showed that the greatest motivator of the human spirit is achievement ,— and it is achievement – that generates the motivation for further achievement.We need to think about how we can build this into the way we are being every day. If you do it right — if you treat people with respect and are honest and earnest in your questions, people will rarely take advantage of you when you ask how you can help them do their job better.

Good leaders call what we are describing as ‘common sense 101′, but how many of your managers approach you in this way? How many managers around you today apply this kind of thinking? If it has not been your practice, might you consider doing it tomorrow?

This is not a Toyota production thing, it is just plain one-on-one communication that leads to success. And Toyota leaders and staff handle the interface between managers and employees in this way every day and so do an ever-increasing number of other companies facing competitive  challenges with which we all must cope in order to get better.

Applying Gemba Walks as described — builds the high-traction platform needed to accelerate your journey of relationship-building to achieve corporate success as you move toward a waste-free Horizontal Value Stream Flow heart beat.  A key point to keep in mind is a favorite one of Bob’s:

“People don’t care how much we know, until they know how much we care.”
– John C. Maxwell


Mike Bremer, a leader of the Chicagoland Consortium and head of Corporate excellence recognition for the Association for Manufacturing Excellence:  This book provides a highly practical ‘boots on the ground’ approach which Lean leaders will appreciate.  This book is ATJ Recommended for doers looking for a solid practical start provided by an experienced Gemba walker.

Jim Womack:  A historic look at how the Gemba Walk evolved with many historical items of background interest from the man,  who with Dan Jones, and Dan Roos initiated Lean it in 1996 with Lean Thinking.  Jim Womack has walked more factory floors than any other human being as the founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute and co-author of Lean Thinking.  ATJ Recommended acquisition for any library.