Gemba: Identify Improvement Opportunities With Waste Walks

by Paul C. Donehue

As you may know, “Genba,” which has been popularized as “Gemba,” is a Japanese word meaning “the real place.”

The word is widely used in Japan, where detectives frequently refer to a crime scene as genba, and Japanese TV reporters often refer to themselves as reporting from genba/gemba.

In the business realm, gemba refers to the place where work is done and value created. For example, in manufacturing gemba is typically the factory floor, but looking further afield it can be any location – a construction site, administrative office, or sales bullpen – where the actual work is being done.

When it comes to Continuous Improvement, problems are most visible in these areas, and the best improvement ideas will come from going to gemba. If your objective is to identify waste, there is no substitute for ‘going to the work’ and there are things that can only be learned by going there and watching the work with a purpose.

Thus a gemba walk, or waste walk, is an activity that takes management and other stakeholders to the front lines to look for waste and opportunities for improvement; to observe the work where the work is being done, and to identify what goes wrong or could go wrong, how often it does or could go wrong, and the associated consequences. The waste walk is designed to help everyone understand the value stream and its problems; it is not to review results and make superficial comments.

Aside from identifying waste and the specific gains made during waste walks, there are also higher-level benefits associated with the practice:

  • Engagement: Since people at all levels are involved, and since the waste walks have proved to be an effective method of detecting hard-to-identify problems as well as solutions which improve both productivity and day-to-day quality of work life, a noticeable increase in workforce engagement is a common by-product. People like it when problems they have known about for a long time are finally solved!
  • Trust: Company leaders are able to establish greater levels of trust with the people closest to the work, by showing interest and seeking the opinions and input of those doing the work.
  • Learn the Truth: Going to gemba enables leaders to identify reality versus what they think (or hope) is happening. Waste walks help leaders to question their assumptions as well.
  • Better Ideas: When the people who are doing the work or executing the process every day start talking, thinking and feeling empowered, the ideas really flow…
  • Ask the Right Questions: questions are often the “answer” to making breakthrough improvements. However, the quality of those questions is the key! Getting the data and seeing it for the first time based on direct observation is powerful; and then if you can get customers, suppliers and company personnel working through the chain, the quality of questions that surface promote more innovative and accurate solutions.
  • Improvement vs. Habit-forming Execution: The combination of fresh eyes, diverse perspective, amnesty, and a collective, sincere interest to eliminate waste and continually improve the work process tends to bring about real, often outside-of-the-box solutions; true Improvement versus dong things the same way.

Interestingly, waste walks have primarily taken place in manufacturing, warehouse or shop-floor environments; and certainly there is much to be gained by “going to gemba” in these areas.

For example, during one waste walk n a manufacturing area, those involved focused on process constraints, and identified several bottlenecks and, ultimately, solutions that increased overall capacity; in another similar setting the gemba team was able to separate value added work from that which was non-value added, and then created data images to document the changes they believed would maximize the former and eliminate the latter.

Taking a slightly different twist, one manufacturer’s gemba team pre-selects a theme each month, such as safety or process inefficiencies, and during the walk they search for activities or process steps that impact the theme.

However, while waste walks are most often put into practice within the above-mentioned areas, many that take place in other organizational areas have proven most worthwhile.

For example, a supply chain management company used waste walks as a way of solving a recurring order-processing problem that had become a hot issue with one of their mid-sized customer locations. They involved a number of their team members, including representatives from management, customer service and their CI group. It worked out so well that they now do waste walks at customer sites on a regular basis. Not only do the teams solve problems and make design changes in ways that benefit both parties, but their relationships with these customers have also grown significantly, which has boosted revenue and customer retention.

Based on the success of gemba or waste walks at customer locations, the company has recently started conducting them with suppliers, and anticipates similar positive results.

Other companies send their employees to observe how their customers use their products and to look for complexities, errors, of troubles that the products cause the customers. Having done that, the employees are able to go back to their own gemba and see more opportunities for Improvement.

In the retail sector, one company conducted a series of waste walks during their inventory season, watching and documenting the process at different stores. While some best-practices were certainly documented during the waste walks at the top performing sites, the greatest gains were made during waste walks at the stores in which performance was traditionally mediocre, where, as a result of the initiative, average cycle time was cut in half!

Even though waste walks are used less frequently in areas where the work is less visible, such as administrative offices, purchasing departments, and R&D labs, some of the greatest opportunities reside in these places. When the work is less visible, the gemba or waste walk team needs to ask many more questions of the people doing the work in order to learn what they are doing and to gain valuable insights.

About the author
Paul C. Donehue is a Senior Associate at Conway Management Company, a global consulting firm that helps improve the way client organizations run.

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