Going to the Gemba

The term Gemba comes from Japan. It is translated to mean the actual place, or the place where something happened. When it comes to the workplace, the concept of Gemba is used specifically for encouraging supervisors, managers, and others in leadership to spend time not only in their offices but also out on the shop floor where work is actually done.

This is a similar concept to a practice commonly known as, “managing by walking around.” The idea behind both of these strategies is that when a leader is spending time out with the employees where work is done, they will be more effective. Learning more about Gemba and why it can be so effective is something that all leaders in manufacturing, warehousing, and just about every other industry should do.

History of Gemba in the Workplace

Unlike many management strategies today, the history of Gemba is not very well documented. While the origin of the word is obvious, the way that it was linked to managers walking to the place where the work was done is not. It is very likely that it got its start with the Toyota Motor Company, since this is where so many other efficiency improvement programs began. It also seems to have started in the same general timeframe.

Whenever the term Gemba began being associated with leadership spending time on the front lines, it is a strategy that has been used for over a century. In fact, there can be examples of similar strategies being used throughout recorded human history, though it was not necessarily the standard.

Having generals, and even kings, spending time with soldiers is a great way to boost morale and discover potential problems in the ranks. While modern industry is obviously not the same thing as ancient military, the concepts of Gemba can help to benefit them both.

Having leaders take time out of their day to directly observe the way things are done is something that has been going on for a very long time, and with good reason.

Benefits of Gemba

There are many advantages to having leaders throughout an organization begin spending time with their front-line employees. While every facility will benefit in different ways, the following are some of the most common perks that a company will get from beginning to use this strategy.

  • Casual Talking with Employees – When managers spend time out on the front lines, they are going to have many more opportunities to chat with the employees. These informal discussions with team members can help to get a lot of honest feedback.
  • Observing Production – By directly observing the work that is being done you will be able to come up with ideas on where things need to change based on more than just theory.
  • Building Relationships – You will be building relationships with your employees. This will help to reduce turnover, improve morale, boost production, and provide many other big benefits.
  • Identify Waste – It is difficult to identify where there are inefficiencies in a process when you are only looking at results of completed products. Looking directly at the production process will help you to identify where there is waste so that it can be eliminated.
  • Allow for Continuous Improvement – When you are always looking at the way things are operating and talking with those who are doing the work, you will have no shortage of information to help make things better. This is essential for continuous improvement in your area.

There are, of course, many other benefits that you will receive from implementing Gemba into your overall management strategy. One of the best things about Gemba is that leaders will almost always be surprised at what they discover when walking around on the front lines. This means that they will learn things about the way their systems work, which will give them the ability to make real improvements that address actual problems in their facility.

Common Objections to Gemba

As with any method of management, there are going to be some downsides as well. Understanding the most common objections to Gemba will help you to decide if it is a good option for you and your facility. In addition, this will give you a more balanced view of the system so you can determine exactly how it should be implemented. Some of the common objections are:

  • Takes a Lot of Time – Going out onto the shop floor or other front-line areas takes time. If you perform a Gemba walk every day, the amount of time you have available for other tasks can add up.
  • Micromanaging – If not done correctly, Gemba can actually cause employees to feel micromanaged instead of like they are given access to the management team.
  • Misunderstanding Work – Supervisors do not always know exactly how each job is performed. If you do not know how something should be completed, it can be difficult to gain valuable insights from watching a job being done.
  • No Action Taken – Some managers spend time on the shop floor but never make any changes to improve things based on what they learn. Gemba should never just be an excuse for someone to walk around and talk with team members.

As with the benefits of Gemba, the objections will be unique to each facility and every manager. If you start implementing a Gemba strategy, it is important to make sure that you are watching out for any downsides so that you can minimize them while still maximizing what your company is getting out of this strategy.

Getting Started with Gemba

While the concept of Gemba is really quite simple, the implementation might not be. If a company just tells managers to start spending a set amount of time on the shop floor each month, for example, it is very likely that this time will be largely wasted. This is why it is so important to get started doing things correctly in order to get the most benefits. The following are a few things that should be done to help all leaders in your organization properly take advantage of Gemba.

Gemba Training

Just like any new process in a facility, it is a good idea to provide supervisors with training. This training should explain what Gemba is, why it can be effective, and most importantly, how to do it. Telling leaders what to look for when walking around, how to keep focused on improvements, and other strategies will help to get the most out of this process.

Many companies will even bring in third party experts to help train leaders throughout the organization on how to optimize their Gemba efforts. This can help to provide an outside perspective and let everyone hit the ground running when getting started with Gemba.

Setting Times

If you do not put the Gemba process on a schedule, it is always going to get pushed back in favor of other obligations that come up throughout the day. Setting aside time to perform a Gemba walk will help to ensure that it gets done on a regular basis.

There are many options when it comes to scheduling your Gemba activities. Some managers like to do a Gemba walk once per week, others will do them less frequently but take more time on each one. There is no single correct way to do this. The important thing is that each supervisor figures out how often they should engage with this type of activity and stick with it over the course of a long period of time.

Taking Notes

When on a Gemba walk, supervisors are going to get a lot of information. This information can come from employees, watching production processes, or any number of other things. The things that are learned during this process will not be beneficial if they forget about them before any action can be taken. This is why taking notes is so important to any successful Gemba strategy.

Some leaders will bring a notepad and a pen to write down notes. Others will bring a tablet so they can record comments or write notes. Still others will video record their experience so they can go back and review key points, so they know they did not forget anything. No matter what option is chosen, the important thing is to make sure to take notes every time a Gemba walk is conducted so that all useful information will be utilized.

Measure Results

One last tip to help ensure Gemba strategies are effective for a facility is to start measuring results. Anytime you make a change in the way a department runs because of something that was learned on a Gemba walk, for example, the improvements that come from that change should be closely tracked.

Measuring the results that come from a Gemba walk will be critical for justifying the amount of time and effort that is used on these things. This is especially important when Gemba is being used by an individual leader rather than having been rolled out to an entire facility.

There is little doubt that Gemba is a very helpful concept in virtually every business, but only if it is done correctly.

Additional Resources