By Shane Cantrell, NWIRC, Operational Excellence Specialist

Photo of gema walk at Switch N Go
Recent Gemba Walk at Switch-N-Go®

Gemba is a Japanese term that refers to: “the real place” or “the actual place” or “where the work is done.” The concept of gemba relates to lean manufacturing, continuous improvement (CI), and kaizen. It emphasizes direct observation to identify opportunities for improvement, solve problems, and make informed decisions. At its core, it involves managers or leaders observing operations, engaging employees, and gaining insights into how work is performed. Most importantly, gemba fosters a culture of transparency, collaboration, and learning.

Observing work as it happens is the focus of Gemba. Let’s delve into how effective observation can drive significant change. Gemba walks are the bedrock of continuous improvement, providing leaders with direct insights into the actual work processes. To maximize the effectiveness of your Gemba walks, here are the key elements to focus on: safety, processes, people, tools/equipment, materials, environment, communication, quality control, and performance metrics.

Safety: It’s critical to observe safety protocols to confirm all safety procedures are being followed. Look for potential hazards and ensure employees are using appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). PPE could include protective clothing, helmets, goggles, or other equipment that protects the wearer’s body from injury or infection. Be sure to engage with employees by asking about their safety concerns and suggestions for improvements.

Processes: Has Standard Work been implemented for the process being observed? If so, check to see if the standard operating procedures are being followed. Identify any deviations and understand the reasons behind them. How is the workflow efficiency for the area of focus? Observe the flow of work to identify bottlenecks, redundancies, and inefficiencies.

People: Observe engagement levels in the Gemba. Assess the engagement and morale of employees. Are they motivated and enthusiastic about their work? If not, why not? Evaluate skill utilization for the process being
observed. Ensure employees are appropriately trained and their skills are utilized effectively.

Tools and Equipment: How is the area doing on condition and maintenance of their tools and equipment? Check the condition of tools and equipment. Are they well-maintained and functioning properly? What about tool and equipment availability? Confirm that the necessary tools and equipment are readily available for employees when needed.

Materials: How is the quality and availability of materials? Assess the quality of materials being used and their availability. Are there issues with material shortages or defects? Observe how materials are handled and stored to identify potential areas for improvement.

Environment: Audit the organization of the workspace. Is it clean, organized, and conducive to productivity? How is the area doing with sustaining a strong discipline of 5S? Observe the ergonomics of the workstations to ensure they support employee health and efficiency.

Communication: Assess how information is communicated across the team and departments. Are there clear channels and regular updates? Ensure there are mechanisms for employees to provide feedback and confirm that this feedback is acted upon.

Quality Control: Verify that quality standards are being met consistently throughout the process. Observe how quality inspections are conducted and ensure they are thorough and regular.

Performance Metrics: Look for visual management tools such as dashboards or boards displaying key performance indicators (KPIs) in real-time. Ensure that there is a system in place to track progress towards goals and identify areas needing attention.

Encourage dialogue by asking open-ended questions such as “What challenges are you facing?” or “How can we improve this process?” Pay close attention to the responses and show that you value their input. This fosters a culture of trust and continuous improvement. Use checklists, notes, or digital tools to document your observations. This helps in identifying trends and areas for improvement. Develop an action plan based on your findings and ensure that follow-up actions are taken promptly.

By focusing on these key elements, your Gemba walks will be more structured, insightful, and productive, leading to meaningful improvements in your organization.

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Side Note: Shane Cantrell provides onsite Gemba Training opportunities to help facilitate more effective engagements with employees where the work happens. Contact him to learn more at: scantrell@nwirc.org