Gemba walks: A key component of leader standard work

Gemba walks as part of Leader Standard Work

Whether performed virtually or in-person, gemba walks let leaders observe processes and engage with employees by asking guiding and probing questions. It encourages critical thinking about the current state and can offer new insights into business challenges, as well as opportunities for improvement. A lot of literature about gemba walks states that leaders should go in with an open mind and ask questions as they arise. However, many leaders — especially those new to doing gemba walks — are uncomfortable doing that, and would rather use a guideline. In this article, senior CCi advisors Maureen Sobolewski and Mary Williamson discuss gemba walks and how they relate to leader standard work (LSW), and offer some guidelines and questions leaders can ask.


What are gemba walks?

Gemba is a Japanese word that literally translates to ‘the real place’. In improvement circles, we understand it as the place where value is created; that is, the location where the actual services are provided or where the work is done, such as the production line, warehouse or machine shop. Gemba walks take the leaders of an organisation to the gemba to watch how a process is done and talk to the people who do the work. Although gemba walks started in manufacturing, they have been applied to process improvement in many industries from customer service centres to software engineering.


How do virtual gemba walks work?

As disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many companies have had to adapt their gemba walks to the virtual space. They realise that gemba walks are still foundational and are therefore leveraging technologies to engage with their employees in new and refreshing ways, and within the confines of social distancing.

While some companies use Zoom, Facetime or WhatsApp, others are experimenting with virtual reality or mixed reality headsets to ‘walk’ the leaders through the manufacturing plant. In some cases, organisations also record the virtual walk-throughs so that leaders can review them later, and better understand how the business and its employees operate.

Virtual gemba walks are just as interactive as in-person gemba walks: The process owner often pauses to discuss any challenges or to let the leader ask questions or talk directly to another employee in the vicinity.


Building a case for leader standard work

Leader standard work (LSW) is the process of ensuring that leaders as well as their direct reports have standard processes in place which are consistently followed. Leaders set the example for those reporting to them. They show through their actions that it is important to follow a standard.

LSW drives the correct behaviour by shifting the focus of leaders to structured coaching, verifying and problem-solving. Correct behaviour entails a move away from a ‘crisis management’ type of leadership, to one of using standardised daily and weekly routines. The process of standardising leadership tasks provides room for improvement because it is easier to improve a documented standard than to improve an ad hoc, haphazardly executed task.

In reality, not all leadership tasks can be standardised, and the higher a person moves up in leadership seniority, the less scope there is for standardised tasks. However, in most leadership positions, there are — to a greater or lesser degree — a fair number of tasks that can be standardised, such as meetings, reporting, administrative tasks, problem-solving methodology and observations.


To standardise work methods is the sum of all the good ways we have discovered up to present. It therefore becomes the standard. Today’s standardisation is the necessary foundation on which tomorrow’s improvement will be based. If you think of standards as confining, then progress stops.

— Henry Ford, Today and Tomorrow, 1926


Gemba walks are one of the standardised tasks that leaders should be performing on a regular basis. Regardless of the level of leadership, gemba walks help leaders grasp the situation in current processes. LSW is about verifying that the standard procedures and processes are being followed at every level. This can only be done by direct observation of the work being carried out at each level. For instance, work done by operators would be verified on the shop floor. LSW at other levels may be verified by observing a meeting or any other routine standard activity done at any level, such as digital dashboards, document trails, process maps and scorecards.


Download the how-to guide Leader standard work for executive leadership to find out how to create a culture of standardisation.

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How to approach a gemba walk

Many leaders want to know exactly how to perform a gemba walk. The answer is difficult to pin down because there’s a certain degree of ‘thinking on your feet’ that must occur as the situation unfolds during your walk through the gemba.

However, here are some guidelines that leaders can follow.


1. Adopt a ‘gemba mentality’, and not an ‘audit mentality’

Firstly, leaders on a gemba walk need to realise that they aren’t there to do an employee performance review or to provide teams with a list of things to do. They are primarily there to coach the process owners to take ownership of solving problems and developing solutions to make the process more effective and efficient, while also eliminating waste. It is the leader’s role to ensure that all the people who are involved in the process are actively engaged in improving it.

People who are engaged and feel that they were a part of the initial scoping and planning of a process are more likely to be enthusiastic about sustaining the improvements. Leaders should therefore embrace their role in the problem-solving process as one of an enabler who encourages at all levels. An enabler is therefore not there to give answers and solve problems. Rather, the enabler asks guiding and probing questions that help process leaders and teams identify their own problems and solutions by asking what, why, what if and why not.


2. Follow an established process and protocol 

Jim Womack tells us in his book Gemba Walks, “Go See. Ask Why. Show Respect.” These form the foundation of any gemba walk. Leaders have to go where the work is being done, they need to ask questions instead of providing solutions, and lastly, they must show respect.

All parties should follow an established protocol and be aware of the process and purpose of the gemba walk. Its ultimate purpose is to improve processes by removing any obstacles or waste that get in the way of people adding maximum value.

The gemba walk process should include the following:

  • Talking about the walk beforehand to make everyone feel comfortable and happy to interact during the walk
  • The process owner accompanying the leader on the gemba walk: By asking the process leader to take you through the gemba, you are not only showing respect but you are also using the gemba walk as an opportunity to coach to the standard, since the process owner is essentially responsible for operating to the standard
  • Interaction with those doing the work: People doing the work must be recognised and respected for the fact that they have the most knowledge about the process; the main focus here is on engaging employees in a way that empowers them

According to Jim Womack, the best way to show respect is to include employees and process owners in the problem-solving process so that they are involved in improving their own work. This increases engagement, buy-in to the solution and sustainability of the solution.


3. Questions to ask on gemba walks 

Many leaders ask us what questions they should ask on gemba walks. Since each gemba walk is unique, leaders would need to formulate their own questions and also ask unplanned questions as queries arise on the gemba walk.

However, the key to a successful gemba walk is to focus on the process, and not on individuals – when you have your processes right, the results will take care of themselves. Questions should also be quite in depth to identify improvement opportunities, and coach and empower process owners.

Here is a list of generic questions you can use as a guide to prompt discussion with the process owner and operator:

  • Is there an established, documented standard process for completing this task or activity?
  • Has 5S been implemented in this area? If so, is the standard of how the area should be maintained clear? Is it visual?
  • How well understood is the standard process to those doing the work? Is it visual? Is it documented?
  • Are the standard procedures being followed? (Show me what you use.)
  • Is the process being performed to the standard?
  • If the process is not being performed to the standard, why do you think this is?
  • If the process is not performing to standard, are troubleshooting guides or quick fix procedures available? Are they being used?
  • If the process is exceeding the standard, why do you think this is?
  • What are the current problems in this process area?
  • What can we do to improve the current conditions?
  • How can we make the abnormal conditions more immediately visual?

In essence, when on a gemba walk, you are trying to ascertain the following:

  • What is the current problem?
  • What is causing the problem?
  • What should be done to solve the problem?
  • How will we know when the problem is eliminated?

Responses to these questions can be challenged, and questions can be discussed at every step of the way.

Once you have captured your observations, test and validate your conclusions with those doing the work. This is not the only input but it is one way to understand whether you have a good handle on the current reality. Also follow up with employees by sharing any next steps – if these are required.

Gemba walks are a valuable task that leaders should be performing regularly as part of leader standard work. By setting the example and ensuring this standard process is being followed, leaders are coaching process owners and paving the way for the next generation of leaders.


Download the how-to guide Gemba walks for executive leadership for expert advice and tips to make your gemba walks a success.

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