How are you using Gemba Walks – as a deep learning tool, or as an industrial tourist? There’s a simple way to check.
In previous articles,I suggested that Gemba Walks are a type of lean management routine built on careful observation of how the work is actually being done, not how we think it is done. They are about developing a greater understanding of problems impacting performance and their causes, so that leaders can learn more aboutwhat could be done to help overcome those problems with their teams.
I’ve been helping organisations and business leaders get their improvement journeys back on track for over 20 years and in the last five years I’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of business leaders who are keen to adopt lean management routines and Gemba Walks to increase business performance and support their organization’s improvement journey.
Now, some people may resist Lean terminology and ‘Gemba Walks’ and that’s ok. But no-one could argue that spending time first hand observing how things really work and uncovering the real problems that impact our people, equipment and businesses is integral to successful leadership and strong healthy organisations.
I’ve talked in other articles about pitfalls that management can fall into in not knowing what to look for and adopting the wrong mindset. There is another fundamental mistake that leaders can make while on their Gemba Walks, one that is so widespread that at least nine out of ten organisations seem to fall foul of it and their Gemba Walks are unstructured, lack purpose, focus on the wrong things and are largely ineffective.
Put purpose before process!
The fundamental mistake that we often make is that when it comes to Gemba Walks, we put process before purpose. The problem is a seemingly simple one, yet it has a significant impact on leader's decision-making and behavior. They develop bad habits that focus on the wrong things.
Nowadays, we see scores of managers congregating together at certain times of the week to visit the workplace/Gemba. Sometimes they are joined by visiting senior executives and business leaders on organized benchmarking visits.
But despite the good intentions of these industrial tourists, and the leaders who invite them, the routines can become shallow exercises where leaders go to be seen, stay busy, copy what others do, ask clever questions, come up with big ideas for others to make work and show who's the smartest. Unfortunately, these visits can be packed full of superficial observations and poor decision-making, rather than developing a deeper understanding of the real work, and the key problems we face that must be addressed if they are able to help increase the maturity of the organization.
Creating the wrong chain reaction
Putting process before purpose feeds traditional management thinking where leaders and management are just thankful that they have completed another task. Without the feedback loop and the check in place, they don’t give a second thought to performance in relation to purpose. And so, the chain reaction begins where:
(1) Leaders don’t have a clear purpose for their Gemba Walk
(2) Leaders haven’t separated the different types of Gemba Walks or developed a process for each
(3) Leaders adopt the wrong mindset and lack an understanding of the thinking necessary to help lean tools and routines work effectively.
With no clear purpose, structured process or mindset, the leadership team encounters a cascade of mistakes and they often fall foul of one or more of the following common pitfalls of Gemba Walks.
Common Pitfalls of Gemba Walks
Mainly go to the Gemba when there is a problem, or they need some information
Spend their time chasing Lean waste and non-value-added activity (Muda/Lean Waste)
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
Don’t have a good understanding of what to look for and what they are observing
Spend their time on a Gemba Walk moving from one department or area to the next, again seeking out problems and waste or having a chat with their colleagues
They jump to solutions and try and come up with great big ideas
Overlook re-occurring problems and key issues impacting performance
Have a different understanding to their colleagues of how things really work, problems and actions required.
A clear purpose
If we had a clear purpose for our Gemba Walks, then we could design the process to support that purpose. A clear purpose is measurable. This helps us understand its effectiveness and whether we are moving in the right direction.
With a clear purpose, we would be able to see that there are different types of Gemba Walk, each with its own purpose, process and mindset.
By breaking the walks up into smaller chunks or routines and separating the different types of walk, we can start to apply purposeful practice, ditching random observations and those grand ideas. It would help leaders enter the space with a genuine openness, curiosity and interest to learn, rather than snapping a quick photo or action and getting back on the coach moving on to the next location or meeting.
Real leaders think differently
So, what can be done? Firstly, put an end to the superficial observation and the flattering niceties of industrial tourism and stop trying to copy others. Start learning for yourselves by:
- Establishing a purpose for your walks
- Separating the different types of Gemba Walk
- Establish a micro purpose, process, mindset and routine for each
- Develop a real understanding of the thinking that makes the improvement tools and routines work.
Start with need and establish a clear purpose for your Gemba Walk.
My definition of purpose for Gemba Walks is: Lean management routines to help align the business, embed standards and develop the collective understanding of leadership and management to focus on the real problems that impact an organisations performance.
Your purpose should include these key dimensions: Alignment, Maintaining and Embedding Standards, and Collective Learning of Leaders and Management. These dimensions will help you frame and prioritise your current and future business problems and strategic issues.
Separate the Different Types of Gemba Walk
Now that we have a purpose, it should be clear for all to see that there is indeed more than one type of Gemba Walk. To maximise their effectiveness, they should be separated.
For me, there are three types of Gemba Walks that are critical to an organisation. These help to reduce those day to day issues and nasty surprises, building a foundation to improve on and ensure that people are working on the right problems and improvements while supporting the longer term strategic view.
Type 1: Checking Alignment - Probably the most important thing a Leader can do is to check alignment, and make sure that all employees are working on the right problems or improvement activity (both workers and management). If alignment isn’t checked, we get either - no action or action without real improvement.
How we do this is by understanding the performance of each team and whether it supports the organisation’s purpose. What are the key issues impacting the team’s performance? Then there’s quite a simple test – you are either working on the key issues, making progress and moving towards your purpose and desired state. Or you are not.
Type 2: Maintaining and Embedding Standards – Standards are just like buildings, equipment and procedures – they do not maintain themselves.
To maintain and embed standards, we need frequent routines to check them, applying simple problem-solving (PDCA /Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycles to bring them back to standard and to find and fix the real reason for variation. These routines should be also applied to management routines as management need help to maintain their work standards too.
Robust standards reduce variation in the work and how we manage the work, problems and nasty surprises that breed here. They act as a foundation for improvement and aid further problem-solving and improvement activity.
Embedding standards also deepens knowledge and understanding within an organisation, which leads to further discovery and improvement.
Type 3: Collective Learning of Leaders and Management– this is where the real work can begin. After a leader has helped to create a culture of continuous improvement and team members are working on the right things, and standards are being maintained and embedded, the next thing a leader needs to look at is raising the bar. Collective, or ‘deep learning,’ about the value that you provide, and how you provide it, can help uncover further organisational issues that may be stopping you from creating greater customer value.
But don’t just guess or brainstorm your strategic plans during a company off-site. Make sure, through Gemba Walks and problem solving that you have grasped the situation, confirming that you know what the problem is that needs to be solved, that you have confirmed the causes through testing and you can fix the problem by considering options to standardise and eliminate it.
What do you think? Are your management routines and Gemba Walks suffering from the superficial observations of the day-tripper? Or are your leaders adding real value to your employees, the organisation and your customers