19 November 2020

Good Use of Gemba Walk

By Xavier Perrin (xperrin@xp-consulting.fr)

"Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect". The words of former Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho, as reported by John Shook in one of his insightful letters on the Lean Enterprise Institute website, sum up very well the principle of "going to the gemba". Gemba means "the real place", the only place where we can have a chance of observing and seeing "the real things" and collect "the actual data". I can imagine that M. Cho used this motto for pushing his teams to change their attitude. Indeed, in our organizations, it is no more a natural attitude. For decades, Information Technology and data bases become the main source of information used by managers for understanding what happen in operations. Managers eventually become disconnected from reality. Yet, data is not reality. It is just information supposed to reflect reality. It is only by going to see things, observing parts, machines, workplace, and listening and questioning people, that we can have a chance to understand what it is about. That is why Toyota leaders and lean thinkers promote "going to the gemba" and other practices like "grasping the situation", "Genshi Genbutsu", or "San Gen Shugi". In fact, literature, training courses, lectures, and many other resources well describe these practices and most of the people who discover them are easily convinced about their interest. Among these practices, gemba walk is more and more promoted and implemented in many companies. This principle is relevant as it pushes managers to do things – Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect – that they are not used to do. Nevertheless, I observe some negative impacts due to the way this idea is put into practice.

Gemba walk is not a sort of tourism!

A few weeks ago, I was teaching Lean Principles in a plant (about 1 500 employees). When I introduced the topic of "going to the gemba", attendees testified their poor experience of gemba walk which was introduced a few years ago in their firm. They feel like local communities visited by groups of tourists just leaving the bus! Obviously, some of these tourists do not really enjoy the tour and look around while checking their smartphone, hurry to leave. Others are more interested in the visit, asking for explanations about what in going on, why some indicators show poor results, and what has been decided for improving them. But, globally, the feeling of those workers is that these visits of their leaders and managers do not help them to solve any of the problems they are facing. Rather, they explain that they fear the gemba walk because their direct managers require them to give a nice look to the workplace, like for visits of customers, they lose time for explanations and justifications, and because it makes an extra load of work without any benefit in return.

Gemba walk should be desired by workers

In another plant I know well, workers and employees like gemba walk. Moreover, they say they need it. In that factory, nobody knows the meaning of gemba walk. But going to the gemba is a way of life initiated and maintained by the plant manager. Every morning, he goes alternately on a shop-floor or in a department for attending the daily standup meeting. He just joins the team like any other employee and listen to the comments about previous day's performance. He does not comment himself the figures, just asks "why" to make people explain, and, by the way, understand the situations. He is very respectful of the employees in that he sincerely shows interest in their job, taking the time to well understand the details. As he comes frequently, he can follow up the improvements. When a specific point arises, which relates to a specific department, he calls immediately the head of that department or any expert whose skills or experience are useful for going further. Those people come to the gemba willingly, as they know that they will contribute to progress.

During executive meetings, this plant manager prompts the other directors or managers to come with facts from the gemba. In case of doubts, he does not hesitate to move the attendees in the place were facts should come from. He makes sure that proposals and decisions from the managers come from the PDCA logic, and he does it by systematically asking "why " as many times as necessary.

In this factory, nobody knows the meaning of gemba walk but there are managers and directors every day on the shop-floor and in other departments. They perfectly know how things are going. Employees appreciate it. They need it. They feel understood and appreciate to have the opportunity to collaborate with their directors and managers. They do not imagine another way to work altogether.

Gemba walk is an opportunity to inform and teach

In that same factory, the plant manager and nearly all managers have understood that going to the gemba is the best tool for communicating with employees, far more effective than the old newsletters or the current Intranets. In fact, they are teachers: when they meet employees, even when those employees are not part of their own department, they take the opportunity for explaining the operations strategy, like in this example:

- Congrats guys! Yesterday, like in the past week, you made all the setups which were planned for these machines. And we can see that you also reduced the average setup time. That's great. And do you know why?

- This allows a higher OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness), replied one of the operators.

- This is not the main reason we focus on reducing setup times. We do that for reducing our lot-sizes. Why is it important?

- Well, it reduces WIP (Work-in-Process Inventories)?

- Yes, it does. Why is it so important to reduce WIP?"

I will not report all that discussion, but it was the opportunity for this director to educate his team about Working Capital Need, lead-time reduction, flow control, and competitiveness. It was a well better training session that the one in a classroom from an external consultant!

It is also the opportunity for leaders to make sure their teams systematically apply the scientific thinking process with the help of the PDCA cycle. Again, they ask "why" as necessary:

- "Hi Thomas, what about yesterday's quality issue on the line?

- Hi Alexandre, we set up a systematic 100% inspection for avoiding sending non-conform parts to the customer.

- Great! And what is your next step?

- We will change the standard for better inspection by the operators.

- Why?

- Because it's necessary for not sending wrong parts.

- I don't think this is the right thing to do. Where do that problem come from? What is the root cause?

- Well, I don't know…

- So, ask for help to the QC department, and start by identifying the possible causes of that issue.

- Well, I'll do that Alexandre

- Great! I'll come back tomorrow morning to take stock of the situation".

After leaving the place, he calls the QC head to ensure that someone will go on the shop-floor for helping the operator.

Some leaders are reluctant for such a practice: "I cannot afford taking all that time for this". In fact, when going to the gemba becomes an attitude, it makes you save a lot of time. Imagine the time you waste at trying to solve issues due to poor understanding of company's policy or dealing with quality issues or poor delivery performance. When those problems come to you, you generally need far more of your time to manage them.

The threat of more virtual work

In most of our countries teleworking tend to become the norm for limiting social contacts and the spread of the pandemic. In France, our government pushes the companies to adopt this practice. Many articles promote all the advantages of teleworking. No doubt that it is a good thing for slowing down the pandemic. But it is still virtual. The only information that we can share are words, data, pictures, figures… not reality. I'm afraid that this period departs us from the good practice of going to the gemba. Thus, our efforts to promote it should be stronger. I count on you!

In conclusion

In my opinion, we are wrong when we present gemba walk as a ritual for pushing managers to go on the gemba. This way, the reason which makes managers going to the gemba in the task "Gemba Walk" which is recorded in their calendar. I am not sure that this is an effective way to make them and all the employees understand the infinite benefits of that practice. Gemba walk should be an attitude, the attitude adopted by managers for knowing real things on the real place, for understanding what happens, teaching what should happen and why it should happen, and teaching scientific thinking. It is mainly a way to show respect to all employees by sincerely taking interest in their daily work.

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