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What kind of conversation should I expect during a gemba walk?

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Dear Gemba Coach,

What kind of conversation should I expect during a gemba walk?

Intriguing question – hard to narrow down as anything can happen. Let me think of when gemba walks go well. Typically, the three main characters during a gemba walk are the leader, the sensei, and the team members. One way to look into this would be to ask: what outcomes should we look for as a result of a gemba walk?

  1. For the team members: Recognition of their efforts by the leader, a clearer understanding of the challenges the organization faces and how the leader intends to address them (as well as their place in that effort) and a commitment of support from the leader on specific issues where they’ve reached the limit of what they can do by themselves – after all, there is no such thing as support, only proof of support.
  2. For the leader: A clearer understanding of the technical issues the team faces, how this relates to the strategic understanding of where the firm is aiming to go and what challenges it faces, a feel for the strengths and weaknesses of products, processes, and people. The leader also should leave with new ideas from local kaizen initiatives, as well as a feel for the morale, engagement and autonomy of the team and its team leader in order to grow a culture of engaged local leaders. (Plus a “shopping list” of immediate things to help the team with where they hit organizational barriers and hassles)
  3. For the sensei: A clearer picture of the lean ideal (or “target conditions”) in the area visited; a more rigorous use of the lean tools to clarify issues for the teams; support for the team’s problem solving or controlled changes; evidence that the team has a deeper understanding of its technical processes and better teamwork both within the team and across the organization; and a commitment to the next step towards the lean ideal from the team.

Tall Order

In other words, a successful gemba walk should result in both a greater clarity of understanding of what is going on for real and a greater commitment to controlled changes both at a team level and a strategic leadership level. A tall order.

Greater clarity means in practice that all involved, team members, middle management, leader, sensei, should come out of the conversation with clearer mental models, which involves quite a lot of checking assumptions. These discussions are not easy and can be fraught with emotion when leaders become overbearing, sensei obtuse, and team members defensive. In fact, the leadership in particular needs to go to the gemba with the explicit intent to change their minds. An open mind is never a non-issue; it needs to be deliberately cultivated.

Greater commitment to controlled change is not easier because it involves making choices by all concerned: What is the next problem to be tackled? What shall we choose to try first? What can we do or can’t we do? Where do we need support? How does this further the strategic intent? Many of these questions are legitimately ambiguous as we all struggle with the fog of war, but at the end of the conversation there should be a commitment on both the key lesson from today’s effort (whether a success or a setback) and the next step to be attempted.

In practice, though, many of the best gemba walks feel totally inconclusive, particularly when we stumble on something really new. The mind finds it difficult to grapple with really new information and is constantly trying to normalize events (as in explaining them away according to what it already knows for sure). When a discovery occurs, saying it out loud often happens much later after the gemba walk during discussions, debates, scratching of heads, and generally mulling about it and muddling through. And that’s okay – part of the interest and fun of gemba walks, actually.


Back to the conversation. Each of the key players progressively learns to handle their part in the process better.

The conversation is often started by the sensei who will point at some specific things to be explained. The sensei is visualizing in his or her mind the ideal lean condition of perfect flow and perfectly autonomous quality control (no mean feat), then visualizing what this means in terms of flexibility and team member activities, whilst keeping an eye out for glaring safety or quality risk. In the best of cases, as he or she runs this mental simulation, the sensei will then stumble on some obvious issue from a lean perspective, point it out, call out the team on it, and ask “why?”

At this stage, the team is often perplexed by the question, tries to answer without quite knowing to expect, which tends to lead to an explanation of the lean principle at work, largely targeted towards the leader there. The leader usually picks up the thread and continues the discussion with the team asking curious questions about the specific technical reasons for things being done the way they are right now. With a little luck, this uncovers ideas for trying new ways or deeper problems which then will have to be thought of further.

If this part of the discussion hasn’t gotten out of control – which does happen, particularly in the early days of gemba walks – the team will then present its on-going kaizen effort. This is not easy for team members considering the wide difference of perspectives in the conversation and, also, acknowledging that they don’t have that much experience with presenting to a senior leader. We need to be careful with the asymmetrical nature of the conversation here. If the leader is somewhat familiar with doing gemba walks, she will have seen plenty of teams and will be quite comfortable with the conversation. Not so for the team that has only talked to the leader face to face a few times if at all, and will be understandably nervous and ill at ease.

This is why a set structure for presenting kaizen efforts is very useful. I personally use Art Smalley and Isao Kato’s six point framework:

  1. Discover improvement potential
  2. Analyze the current method
  3. Generate original ideas
  4. Develop an implementation plan
  5. Implement the plan
  6. Evaluate the new method.

Stay Cool

This, I’ve found is a fairly safe way to help teams prepare and support the conversation with senior leaders. During the presentation it’s important to try to have both the sensei and the leader ask only clarification questions (“why?”), although, let’s face it, when something sufficiently surprising comes up, the process tends to get derailed by outright thinking aloud, and that’s okay as well – many of the best insights are born this way, even when the conversation itself feels derailed or even if it ends up in an argument. The point is to take it easy and stay cool, and always end reassuring the teams that no matter how heated the debate (a sign that leaders and managers are actually engaged), they did well and their work is appreciated.

Some of the best gemba walk conversations I’ve been fortunate to witness have sometimes led to strategic level pivots. For instance, a conversation on the gemba a while ago about difficulties with internal management software for a product eventually led from using open source generic software as opposed to developing in-house systems. Quite a big deal. Another spectacular example was a gemba walk at a supplier in charge of a large part of an assembly which eventually led to reintegrating all assembly in-house. In yet another case, the leader realized there was a gap in his product range and started a new development effort.

One important thing to keep in mind is much of the key parts of the gemba walk conversation happen before and after actually being on the gemba. Before the leader and the sensei discuss the general situation, the problems they’re trying to solve, and what specific things they want to look at on the gemba – in the best case, what specific hypothesis they’d like to test.

After the gemba walk, much talk is also needed to compare impressions and try to figure out what the gemba actually told us. The gemba may be a great teacher, but it needs deep thinking to be heard properly, which again involves confronting points of view and thinking out loud because how can we know what we’re saying if we don’t hear ourselves say it?

Word of Warning

I’d be very reluctant to specify any actual process for gemba walk conversations. After all, the whole point of being together on the gemba is to drop the “company face” and actually talk to each other, as human beings, across organizational, roles, interests, and hierarchical barriers.

Still, one needs to recognize such conversations are not easy, particularly in established organizations where everything is set so no one ever gets out of their own bubble. One trick to keep in mind is to avoid frontal face-to-face conversations, which tend to trigger fight-or-flight reflexes (overbearing managers, defensive staff, etc.). The tools are a key ingredient of the gemba walk because they allow the leader and employees to look at any situation through the tool, stand shoulder to shoulder, and actually discuss what they see; they face the problem, not each other.

In the same vein, a word of warning about conducting gemba walks without the basic tools of pull system in place or any kind of board where team members express their problems and their opinions of these problems causes. Without these basics in place at the gemba, leaders tend to latch on randomly to issues and gemba walks devolve into management-by-walking-around: unhelpful at best, destructive at worse.

Therefore, the one thing I’d keep in mind about gemba walks is that the conversation needs to be mediated through a lean tool (which is one of the reasons it’s so dicey to do lean without a sensei) – the tool is the basic enabler of the conversation and, in my experience, the better the tool, the better the gemba conversation.

2 Comments | Post a Comment
Geno Johnston January 14, 2017

Thanks for the very interesting article on a very hot topic “Gemba Walks”.  I would like to offer a slightly different twist, not that what is in your article is bad, just a different POV.  Firstly always have a purpose for going to the “Gemba”.  It should not be simply because its 1:30 on Wednesday and I am to go to “Gemba”.  So as you state a good reason to go to “Gemba” is to learn, or seek better understanding, be it of a problem area, a new product line, or one that has never been a problem and often forgotten area.  But always have a purpose.

Seeing with your own eyes is always the best way.  I understand the thought behind having the sensei (often an outsider) going with you just like Linus had his blanket.  However, there is no real value in the sensei being on every Gemba walk; it actually possibly sets a negative tone with the Gemba workers.  Having the ability to ask good questions is important and must be accomplished, without again can have a negative tone.  By good questions it isn’t the typical, how do you like working here?  But something that requires interaction and some thought from all.  Maybe a simple question of “What’s challenging or difficult with your job?”  Be certain to listen don’t allow others to interrupt or cut them off.  Then after you hear the response a good follow on question is “How can we do it better?”  Then listen again and take action if it seems like appropriate countermeasure.  The ones who know the process best are those that are doing it day in and day out.  Often time’s people will do exactly as they were trained regardless of if they can think of a better way. 

Going to the Gemba thankfully is finally becoming the “Thing to do” but remember like everything else we do there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.  This article is good but could possibly mislead one into forming bad habits from the onset.  There is a great book which I would truly recommend reading and that is “Gemba Walks” by LEI’s own Jim Womack. 

Again thanks for insightful article and thoughts   

Bob sanchez January 31, 2017

Gemba walks must be looked at as a daily exploration trip.  I cannot emphasize  enough to my Team that observing is the beginning, the conversation  is the problem recognition  phase, and what follows  is taking action for improvement .   Building trust with your Team leads to an open dialogue.

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