What is a Gemba Walk?

According to the Lean Lexicon, 5th Edition, a gemba walk is defined as follows: A management practice for grasping the current situation through direct observation and inquiry before taking action.

Gemba means “actual place” in Japanese. Lean Thinkers use it to mean the place where value is created – your factory or plant floor/warehouse organizational system/work area. Japanese companies often supplement gemba with the related term “genchi gembutsu” — essentially “go and see” — to stress the importance of empiricism. To simplify it even more, this means, to get up and go out and look at the processes being used to create in your workplace. Look for the waste and formulas being used and how to improve.

Because value flows horizontally across companies to customers, a productive way to take a gemba walk is to follow a single product family or product design or customer-facing process from start to finish across departments, functions, and organizations, according James Womack, author of “Gemba Walks,” and founder of the Lean Enterprise Institute.

Womack also recommends gathering everyone who touches the process being studied to walk together while discussing purpose (what problem does this process solve for the customer), process (how does it actually work), and people (are they engaged in creating, sustaining, and improving the process). Thus, a gemba walk becomes a way to understand work, lead, and learn.

Why Gemba?

The idea of taking a gemba walk through a workplace started with a Toyota executive, Tailichi Ohno. While he called it a “genba” walk, today’s gemba walk is the same thing: An opportunity for leaders and employees to observe machinery, processes and protocols in action on plant floors and look for value and inefficiencies. Ohno believed that if management went out and looked on the actual plant floor, asked questions and fully understood the processes and engineering functions being used, problems could be easily solved in the most efficient manner.

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

Womack says gemba walks are a great way for management to understand the root causes of inefficiencies and 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.”

Some tips to consider for an effective gemba walk:

  • Let employees know what’s going on before you gemba walk. Let them know the purpose of the walk and observation period is not to catch them doing something wrong. Let them know the purpose is to help them be more efficient – to aid them in doing their job.
  • Observe and ask questions. Don’t just talk to floor managers, talk to employees working the lines. Don’t take the word of the floor manager of how it works, see it for yourself.
  • If you observe a process that doesn’t seem to be happening in an efficient manner, ask questions. What disrupts the work? Where was the mistake made? Is it a human mistake? A mechanical mistake? Does the problem start where you see it manifest, or does it start earlier in the process? Ask many questions and observe.

After the gemba walk, creating a plan of action is necessary to solve the problem. Now that you’ve observed the inefficiency, management and employees can discuss ways to improve the work flow.

Michael Balle, a renowned Gemba Coach, suggests those embarking on a gemba walk 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?

Solutions to process inhibitors could include training, visual cues, a revamp of tasks, new machinery or a change in the process. Remember to keep a solution to the problem as your top priority, taking input from those employees 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.