A gemba walk is a practical tool to increase productivity—and introduce savings—in the workplace. It’s used in business to show where value is created in your a area, whether that’s a plant floor or warehouse, and to identify where better practices can be implemented. Explore this introduction to gemba—and consider a gemba walk as part of your management practice and learn how to use this tool to identify and address inefficiencies in the workplace and improve productivity.

What Is Gemba?

Gemba is a core component of the lean management philosophy espoused by Jim Womack, a management expert, founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute, and author of Gemba Walks. According to Womack’s Lean Lexicon, 5th Edition, the definition of a gemba walk is “a management practice for grasping the current situation through direct observation and inquiry before taking action.”

What Does Gemba Mean?

Gemba comes from the Japanese word genba, which translates to “the real place.” Inspired by this original language, Lean Thinkers use the term gemba to mean the place where value is created: In a factory, the gemba is the plant floor; at a construction site, the gemba would be the building being constructed; and in an emergency room, the gemba would be the triage area and treatment rooms for patients.

Japanese companies often supplement gemba with the related term genchi gembutsu (essentially “go and see”) to stress the importance of empiricism. The idea is to observe firsthand the processes being used in your workplace, look for waste or inefficiencies, and find areas for improvement.

What Is a Gemba Walk?

The idea of taking a gemba—or genba—walk through a workplace started with a Toyota executive, Tailichi Ohno. Ohno viewed this as an opportunity for leaders and employees to observe machinery, processes, and protocols in action and look for value, inefficiencies, and areas to improve. Ohno believed that if management observed the actual plant floor, asked questions, and fully understood the processes and engineering functions being used, they could easily and more efficiently solve problems. 

What Is the Purpose of a Gemba Walk?

Gemba walks are a great way for management to understand the root causes of inefficiencies in a workplace—and identify how to correct them. “Let’s stop analyzing numerous bits of data on our computer screens. Let’s put on hold heated discussions about the best way to solve a problem from conference rooms,” Womack says in his book. “Instead, let’s go to the Gemba and see what’s going on there.”

How Does a Gemba Walk Work?

Here’s an example of how a gemba walk could work: A manager conducting a gemba walk observes that multiple people are using a pallet-jack and not putting it back in a central location. As a result, employees must stop the flow of inventory distribution to go track down a pallet-jack, ultimately wasting time. This could lead a manager to designate a marked area to store pallet-jacks and even purchase more tools if needed.

How to Do a Gemba Walk

​Value flows horizontally across companies to customers, so Womack suggests that a productive approach to a gemba walk is to follow a single product family, product design, or customer-facing process across departments, functions, and organizations—from start to finish.

Womack also recommends that everyone who touches the process studied be involved in the walk, and that they discuss three key factors:

  • Purpose: What problem does this process solve for the customer?
  • Process: How does it actually work?
  • People: Are employees engaged in creating, sustaining, and improving the process? 

Michael Balle, a renowned Gemba Coach, suggests those embarking on a gemba walk also keep these five questions in mind:

  • What are people trying to achieve?
  • What skill(s) would best serve them to achieve their goals?
  • How should I teach them these skills?
  • What difficulties are they experiencing in executing the skill?
  • What exercises or tools can I give them to overcome these difficulties?

Tips for an Effective Gemba Walk 

Beyond following a single product across a horizontal process and approaching the walk with certain questions in mind, you can increase the effectiveness of a gemba walk by following these practical tips.

  • Tell employees what’s going on. Let them know that the purpose of the gemba walk and observation period is not to catch them doing something wrong, but rather to help them be more efficient—to aid them in doing their job.
  • Ask and observe. Don’t just talk to floor managers, but also talk to employees working the lines. Don’t take the word of the floor manager about how a process or method works; witness it for yourself.
  • Be curious. If you observe a process that appears to be inefficient, ask questions. What disrupts the work? Where was the mistake made? Is it a human mistake, or a mechanical one? Does the problem start where you see it manifest, or does it start earlier in the process?

After a Gemba Walk: Creating an Action Plan 

Creating a post-walk plan of action is a necessary next step in solving the problem. Once they’ve observed the inefficiency, management and employees can discuss ways to improve the workflow. Solutions to process inhibitors could include training, visual cues, a revamp of tasks, new machinery, or a change in the process itself. Remember to keep a solution to the problem as your top priority, taking input from those employees directly involved in the process.

Stop-Painting is the industry leader in visual cues that increase productivity and safety. After your gemba walk, ask yourself how updating existing visual cues or implementing the use of new cues could resolve productivity issues. Check out our inventory of floor marking tape and safety signs (including our online custom sign tool) or browse our how-to guides and informational articles in our Resource Center.