Gemba Walk — what it is, how to do it, and a checklist for doing it well
As a manager, you need to improve efficiency. But you can’t be everywhere at once — it’s inevitable that recurring problems or inefficiencies will slow down particular processes in your business.
So, how can you improve efficiency? The answer is lean management practices like a Gemba Walk. A Gemba Walk offers a simple strategy for finding efficiencies and solving problems, all while keeping your team engaged.
In this article, you’ll learn what it means to do a Gemba Walk, discover how to do it well, and also find a simple checklist to help you get started.
What is a Gemba Walk?
A Gemba Walk is a lean management practice where leaders can see work processes in context. “Gemba” is a Japanese word that translates to “the actual place,” which means that managers get out of their offices and visit workers in their environment. The Gemba Walk originated from Toyota’s manufacturing department, but you can use them for any organization, process, or industry.
The goal of a Gemba Walk is to show leaders what’s really happening in their organization. By regularly analyzing certain processes, a Gemba Walk helps managers spot waste or inefficiencies. A Gemba Walk helps managers become more involved in day-to-day operations that they normally wouldn’t see, which helps leaders make more realistic, informed decisions.
How to do an effective Gemba Walk
Gemba Walks typically help manufacturers find inefficiencies in their factories, but you can do Gemba Walks at your business too. Follow this seven-step process to do effective Gemba Walks around your organization.
1. Make a plan
You can’t wander into a Gemba Walk without a plan. Each Gemba Walk needs to focus on a specific process or area of concern.
Before going on a walk, decide what you’ll concentrate on. Maybe you’re looking just at the sales process or looking for wasted time or safety concerns. Assessing everything at once will overwhelm you, so make a plan for which area of the business you’ll analyze that day.
2. Prepare the team
Gemba Walks should never be a surprise. Your employees need to know well in advance that a Gemba Walk is happening — otherwise, you’ll breed mistrust between managers and employees.
It’s also important to explain what a Gemba Walk is to your employees. The walk isn’t a ploy by management to snoop on employees but rather a strategy to observe processes as they happen. Emphasize that this isn’t an evaluation of employees’ work — it’s an attempt to serve their needs by optimizing processes.
Plus, if employees know you’re looking at a specific process ahead of time, they can come to the table with ideas of their own. Since the goal of a Gemba Walk is to find efficiencies, preparing your team can help you get more value out of the activity.
3. Walk along the value stream
During a Gemba Walk, you observe the areas of your business where you create bottom-line value. This is called the “value stream.”
While it’s helpful to look at other processes in your business, the value stream is the area of your business that accounts for most of your revenue. In manufacturing, that’s the factory floor. In a B2B company, it’s probably sales. In a dropshipping business, it might be logistics.
Wherever your value stream is, a Gemba Walk will help you look at every stop along the way. The goal is to help you find areas along the value stream where you can tighten up the process for greater efficiency. Instead of focusing on processes that don’t contribute to the bottom line, following the value stream will help you focus on what truly matters.
4. Document your observations
Managers should have documentation for every Gemba Walk. It isn’t enough to log inefficiencies in your head as you walk along the value stream — you need to write everything down so you can reference it later.
If you see something, document it in a digital note-taking app. Be sure to take pictures if it will help jog your memory later. By logging your Gemba Walks digitally, you can easily check data on past walks and compare what you saw against other managers’ notes.
5. Don’t give feedback during the walk
When you’re on a Gemba Walk, you’re in learning mode. It’s okay to ask clarifying questions, but you shouldn’t give feedback or try to fix anything during the walk.
That’s because you might not have all the details right now. Treat the experience as a fact-finding mission. After the Gemba Walk, you can talk about potential solutions with the management team or your employees based on what you saw.
Gemba Walks aren’t about correcting employees but rather understanding what you can improve. Plus, employees will begin to dread Gemba Walks if you critique them during the process. This can produce mistrust — and won’t give you a true picture of how your business really operates.
6. Focus on process (not people)
The information you gather during a Gemba Walk should focus on the overall process, not an individual employee’s performance. While performance is an important piece to consider, this is your chance to look at the bigger picture.
By focusing on the process instead of a specific person, you can find inefficiencies in the workflow itself. In fact, you might find that individual performance improves when you support employees with better processes.
Gemba Walks only work when managers are transparent. Don’t do a Gemba Walk without closing the loop — always follow up with your team to share what you observed.
Since Gemba Walks are a collaborative process, you can tell your team what you observed and ask them for suggestions. This will not only help you design a more efficient workflow but also show employees that you take their feedback seriously.
Gemba Walk checklist
Gemba Walks demand consistency, so it’s important to use a checklist to structure each one. This gives your team a framework that ensures you have consistent findings with each walk.
Every organization is different, but you can use this Gemba Walk checklist as a starting point:
- Describe the work process
- How does this process further company goals?
- Which tasks are each employee responsible for?
- Is the process clearly documented?
- Why does the employee perform the task this way? How does it differ from the SOP?
- What would cause this process to not meet its target?
- Is there a process for reporting problems?
- Does the employee know who to report problems to?
- What would speed up or improve this process?
- Does the employee have any concerns or problems with the process?
- What is the root of the problem?
- Does the employee have ideas or suggestions for solving the problem?
- Would any materials, machinery, or software make this process easier?
Virtual Gemba Walks
Like many lean management strategies, Gemba Walks have found a new home in the world of business. Virtual or remote Gemba Walks are just as effective for business teams as they are for manufacturers. They became popular during the pandemic, but businesses still conduct virtual Gemba Walks to save time while optimizing their processes.
You can do virtual Gemba Walks in a variety of ways too:
- One-on-one remote calls. Schedule a Zoom video call with your employee and interview them about the process while they go through it with you.
- Online focus groups. This is ideal if you work in a team-oriented environment that requires a lot of collaboration. Bring your team together and ask members to focus on a particular process. Ask them how it works and how they think it could be improved. You should also ask about any barriers they have and how you can remove them.
- Virtual shadowing. This is when an employee shares their screen and the manager observes them as they work. Like an in-person Gemba Walk, the manager only interrupts the employee to ask clarifying questions.
Virtual Gemba Walks follow the same steps and checklist as in-person Gemba Walks. However, there’s the added benefit of taking screenshots or recording the walkthroughs, so virtual Gemba Walks can certainly help businesses improve processes over time.
Getting started with Gemba Walks
Gemba Walks aren’t a one-and-done deal. They’re an essential part of lean management and encourage continuous improvement. If you want to reduce waste, remove silos, improve efficiencies, and increase employee satisfaction, regular Gemba Walks are a must. However, they’re just a part of the whole, so it’s critical to practice other areas of lean project management too.
When you’re ready to get started with Gemba Walks, remember to:
- Create a plan
- Prepare your employees
- Analyze the value stream
- Document everything
- Observe instead of correct
- Analyze processes, not people
- Follow up with employees
Gemba Walks require structure, and solutions like Adobe Workfront offer just that. Workfront is enterprise project management software that connects work to strategy and drives better collaboration to deliver measurable business outcomes. It integrates people, data, processes, and technology across an organization, so you can manage the entire lifecycle of projects from start to finish. By optimizing and centralizing digital projects, cross-functional teams can connect, collaborate, and execute from anywhere to help them do their best work.