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What Too Many Lean Leaders Forget about Gemba Walks

by Darren Walsh
April 13, 2017

What Too Many Lean Leaders Forget about Gemba Walks

by Darren Walsh
April 13, 2017 | Comments (6)

To ensure that management plays an active role in an organisation’s lean journey and get closer to real business issues, many organisations are adopting gemba walks as a way of developing a greater understanding of the current situation, issues impacting performance and better decision-making. 

But too often, despite management’s good intentions, the gemba walk routines lapse into traditional management, in which leaders end up walking around, exercising command and control. Instead of supporting the organisation’s purpose, processes and people, they walk past the same reoccurring problems and processes that are not able to meet their objectives. Instead of learning about the work and finding and fixing problems, they latch onto random minor issues and jump to solutions.

Whether you adopt a formal management routine or not, leaders at all levels of the organisation need to spend time at the gemba where the value is being created. It’s a must if they are to learn, develop their lean leadership skills and gain a deeper understanding of how their organisation works and how they can help create greater value for the customer.  But if they’re going to get the most from a gemba walk, one of my best tips is to know what (and what not) to look for.

Many leaders don’t know what to look for whilst on a gemba walk and therefore their behaviour can often drive the wrong activities and performance. What I’ve often seen happen is leaders:         

  • Only go to the gemba when there is a problem or they need some specific information
  • Spend their time chasing lean waste and non-value added activity (muda)  
  • Focus on random issues and problems
  • Look to see if things are clean, tidy and organised
  • Check to see if their employees are present, busy and efficient
  • Overlook re-occurring problems and key issues impacting performance
  • Don’t have a good understanding of what to look for and what they are observing
  • Have a different understanding than their colleagues of how things work, problems and actions required
  • Spend their time on a gemba walk moving from one department or area to the next, again seeking out problems and waste

I recall one organisation I worked with that had regular gemba walks – they had developed a formal and excellently disciplined process involving the management team in regular attendance, or an able deputy in their place. But they regularly walked right past business performance problems without even a short discussion – they were actually more concerned with looking for housekeeping and people issues and completing the gemba walk routine than finding those key problems that, if solved, can help move the organisation forward.

Leaders may often walk past reoccurring problems, bad processes and employees that need help – but not because they are bad leaders, short-sighted or hard of hearing. They are intelligent, good people that simply have not learned to see flow; haven’t designed their processes to flow; and/or don’t have a plan, the right mindset, knowledge or capability.

So what can be done? To improve the effectiveness of your gemba walks and accelerate the development of lean leadership, you can…

  1. Establish a purpose for your walk. It should be one that seeks to learn, discover, develop a greater understanding of the work, and gain consensus amongst the management team about the issues that stop your people winning and being successful.
  2. Develop a plan for your walk. It must follow the flow of value down through the value stream or support process – this way you will eliminate the flitting between separate processes and find it easier to develop your observation skills.
  3. Develop lean within your value streams and support processes. This makes it easier to see flow with a mixture of standardised work, visual management, one-piece flow, FIFO or pull systems.
  4. Stop looking for muda (non value added work). If you look deep enough you are likely to find thousands of examples of waste, issues and problems. Instead, focus on finding muri (overburden) and mura (variation/unevenness), and check that the frontlines are dealing with muda reduction and observing value flow.
  5. Stop focusing on people being busy and efficient. Instead focus on value-stream effectiveness; otherwise you will end up hiding many of your biggest opportunities or driving point improvement.

To develop capability the leadership team needs to practice developing their observation skills so that they can understand how a process is performing, whether employees need help and if improvement activities are helping move the organisation closer to its True North.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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6 Comments | Post a Comment
Wayne Scott April 14, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Well said.  I admit that I have had a tendency to get caught up in minor, non-value added activities during gemba walks.  It can be hard to completely put aside the "firefighter" tendency.  Thanks much. 



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Linda Murphy April 14, 2017

Darren, you might like this related video from the 2013 Annual AME conference in Toronto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ai9teO21YDQ. I agree that despite good intentions, Gemba Walks typically end up a version of traditional command-and-control management. The video explores why and proposes a different practice. It's not necessarily intentional. Habits of mind are at play here, so leaders probably have to *intentionally* practice a different routine if they want a different outcome.

 



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williamcui April 15, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Well said. I totally agree with what you post in this essay. When I go see and find out what happened in workshop. I always have a strong tendency to find minor things rather than from the prospective of the value stream.



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Owen A Berkeley-Hill April 17, 2017

Hi Darren,

Thanks for the post.

I csannot help feeling that the Lean movement has been a bit soft, possibly for financial reasons, and has allowed leaders to think they are Lean when they are not, as you so well describe.

I see signs (small shoots?) that the movement is moving from "toolbox" to "improvement methodology" to, hopefully seeing Lean as a radically new leadershp philosophy. Does it have anything in common with Command&Control? That would be an interesting question, but my instinct is that it is radically different and a difficult migration for anyone who has been in a management position for any length of time, especially someone with an MBA.

The failure of the Lean movement is that it has not gone after the B-schools and what they teach.  If management and leadership education was:

1. based on the 70/20/10 model where 70% was experiential learning; and

2. the degree was based on solid Lean foundations;

we might see less regression.



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Ian Newman April 17, 2017

Excellent post. I've seen a lot of high level leaders (good people) get caught up on muda during gemba visits, but miss the over burden and unevenness (symptoms of poor flow). I think it's really important to establish a purpose before such walks; just like a good A3 - what it's not about is just as important.



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Mark Loscudo April 17, 2017
1 Person AGREES with this comment

Gemba walks can be game changers. Understanding what the work is on the shop floor, asking questions about process and value added activities,  being engaged with  assocaites and providing support when needed can change the culture.

Gemba walks provide a consistant and regular way for senior management to re-enforce the key objectives for the organization, (ie. quality, safety, etc.) through review of the metric boards and asking right questions.



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