Don’t Underestimate the Value of the Gemba Walk
The Gemba Walk is often used as a standard work staple in a manufacturer’s lean toolbox.
Gemba is a Japanese word which means “the actual place” or “where the work is”. A Gemba Walk can be an ad hoc event or scheduled on a repeating schedule. In either case, it is a conscious effort to go where the value is added, observe firsthand and interact with the operators doing the work.
Data Aire has incorporated the Gemba Walk as a key component of our continuous improvement efforts. The visibility and action-based approach are critical as we improve our operational performance for quality and delivery.
Five Gemba Benefits for Manufacturers
In my experience, the Gemba Walk can accomplish several things:
- Focus: It illustrates to the team what is important. If we tell employees that we want them to do something, but we never check on the progress or offer support, the message we send is “I want you to do this, but it isn’t important to me”. When I schedule time in my day to review something, my actions make it clear to the employees that I think it is important. What management pays attention to is what the employees will pay attention to.
- Support: It is a show of support from management. The Gemba Walk can be perceived as ‘Management is checking up on me”, which is true to some extent. But the approach and spirit of the Gemba Walk is yours to define. At Data Aire, we use a “we are here to help” approach that encourages operators to raise the issues that are impacting their performance. We will often end with the question “Is there anything else we can do to help?”
- Standard Work: It reminds office employees to go to the production floor. In this age of electronic communication, it is all too easy to spend the day in front of a computer and never venture out to where the value-added work is being done. A scheduled Gemba Walk makes it a regular event instead of something I’ll get to if I have the time.
- Interval Control: If you schedule some of your Gemba Walks, it creates a tempo (often referred to as short interval control) that ensures critical operations aren’t ignored longer than needed. I often describe this with a medical analogy – if a patient is in critical condition, the medical staff is going to check his/her vitals on regular intervals. They are not going to wait until the end of the day to see if the patient is still alive.
- Accurate Perception: Perhaps the greatest value is exactly what the Genchi Genbutsu concept intends. It gets management to where the value-add takes place and allows them to see the real situation. Decisions are made based on first hand observations or feedback received directly from the subject matter experts. This improves both the quality and the timeliness of decisions and provides a practical method to identify opportunities and to drive improvement.
How to Apply Gemba in Manufacturing
At Data Aire, we have implemented Gemba Walks for different areas of the production floor and with different focuses, including:
5S: We conduct 5S Gemba Walks every other week, going to a different section of the site each day. The walk is a visual walkthrough accompanied by the cell owner looking for safety or organization/cleanliness improvement opportunities. We keep a running action list for each area, marking items complete and/or adding new items each week. Knowing that items will be revisited in two weeks keeps everyone focused on completing the tasks in a timely manner. This walk has been instrumental in improving our 5S progress.
PDCA: We utilize Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle to identify and take action to improve our operational performance. Safety, quality and delivery are all measured daily in each cell. The operations team stops at various cells during a morning Gemba Walk to review the performance and to take actions as needed to support the operators. While there are Key Performance Indicators that we review (Plan, Do, Check) the key element is Act. Actively seeking out opportunities to improve and taking the appropriate actions are key to any continuous improvement program. Without the actions, we are just making charts.
Returned Materials: A Gemba schedule has been established to walk our RMA area to ensure that returns are processed regularly and in a timely manner. Again, management focus creates employee focus and the regular review identifies bottlenecks and obstacles.
Being a manufacturing company, Data Aire is always focused on delivering a quality product, on-time to our customers. Our processes range from fabricating structures out of raw material, painting and powder coating to installing components built by external suppliers as well as testing and programming. There are many variables, both internal and external, on any given day and problems are a reality.
The Gemba Walk is not high-tech, an automation or particularly sophisticated, but its cultural and practical effects can be significant. The Gemba/PDCA Walk schedules us to proactively go and look at the process, identify the challenges and to take action.
Consciously scheduling Gemba Walks of key processes is creating focus, driving the desired behaviors and is a foundational piece of the improvement culture at Data Aire.