What to look for on a gemba walk

Gemba (現場) means actual place. As consultants, we ask clients to show us their gemba, and we exhort their managers to do it routinely. But we must have a clear idea of why we should go to the gemba and what to do once we are in it. In Manufacturing, the gemba is the production shop floor.

For a consultant, the point of walking through a factory shop floor is to learn about its current state, complete through direct observation what could not be known through previously received written or oral input, and to validate or refute this input. For a manager, making daily rounds through the shop floor is different, and involves two-way communication. The manager’s presence, body language, and attire are by themselves a message to the work force. Being watched by everybody, the manager can listen and ask questions, but must be cautious not to give instructions to operators over the heads of supervisors.

From documents received ahead of time or personal communication, the consultant might know that the plant is using dispatch lists from an ERP system to schedule production. On the shop floor, these dispatch lists and the way they are used would be visible. Manual annotations could reveal that the tasks are not done in the recommended sequence, and a supervisor could explain that this is due to setups or missing parts. In other words, you don’t go to the shop floor to find out what the intended scheduling system is, but to find out how work is actually sequenced and what relationship it has with the scheduling system output. A manager walking with the consultant would make a note of the situation, and follow up on it later with supervisors and Production Control.

Shop floor observations include the overall design of the plant for production and internal logistics, as well as details that reveal how it is operated. You can tell whether it is a job-shop, a flow line, or a collection of flow lines. You can tell whether the flow of materials is visible, what kind of equipment is used for materials handling, and how much of the floor is used for warehousing versus production. When you zoom in on individual stations, you can assess the level of automation and the attention that has been paid to the design of operator jobs. You can also check out the accuracy of the signage, the presence and use of andons, mistake-proofing devices, production monitors, and team performance  boards.

It is quite possible to walk through the aisles and not notice that the plant is anything but a tight ship. The key to actually seeing is to not just watch but instead act. This activity yields information both directly and indirectly. Several tools are available to help you see better, some of which require more than a quick visit. They include the following:

  1. Using a Seven Wastes Checklist. The list of seven wastes helps you identify occurrences of them, whether you keep in on a paper checklist or in your mind.
  2. Following the flow. Pretending you are a work piece and following the process backwards from the end to the beginning,  noting where and how many times it waits for transportation or processing, how operators perceive upstream and downstream colleagues, the tools,  fixtures and storage devices  used at each operation.
  3. Counting. You emulate Sesame Street’s “The Count”  and start counting people, machines, parts or fixtures. That’s how you may notice that 20% of the people are walking in the aisles rather than tending to their machines. You ask a few questions and find out that half of those 20% are going to or returning from the tool crib. You have not only discovered that the plant uses a wasteful method for distributing tools, but you also have a ballpark estimate of the productivity improvements at stake in setting up tool pickup and delivery milk runs. Thus the simple act of counting people has led you to discover a pattern of wasteful operation, which you will then recognize immediately elsewhere. In other words, you have learned to see it.
  4. Hunting for bugs. Kei Abe came up with the “bug hunt” as a means of making managers aware of common small problems that are easily overlooked. 10 to 20 managers get each a stack of 10 red tags and 20 minutes to attach them to frayed cables, broken gauges or switches, puddles of oil, lubricant on the floor, devices held in place by duct tape, or any other detail that is clearly wrong. Wherever I have seen this method used, all managers used up their stack of tags, and came away stunned by the sheer number of small maintenance problems they found.
  5. Conducting video time studies. These directly generates process time data, and indirectly causes you to notice details of the work that you would otherwise miss. For example, you see that an operator is much busier than a neighbor, or lit from behind behind and working in his or her own shadow, etc.

Other perspectives on this topic include the following:

  • Eugene R. Goodson, in the May, 2002 issue of the Harvard Business Review, published an paper entitled Read a Plant — Fast proposing a method for a small team to rate a plant in 11 categories–including safety, scheduling, inventory, teamwork, and supply chain. I find the recommendations useful but insufficient, particularly in the areas of layout and work station design. I also don’t believe in assigning scores on subjective scales, with categories ranging from “poor” to “best-in-class.”
  • Joseph Paris has a blog post called The Gemba Beyond the Window, with some interesting insights on communicating the monetary value of what you have on the shop floor.
  • The AME’s Accelerating the Journey blog contains the following list of  “10 Questions asked on a Gemba Walk”:
  1. What are the business issues with this product?
  2. Who is responsible for the value stream for this product?
  3. How are orders from the customer received?
  4. Where is the pacemaker process, triggered by customer orders?
  5. How capable, available, adequate, and waste-free are assembly activities?
  6. How capable, available, adequate, and waste-free are the fabrication activities feeding assembly?
  7. How are orders transmitted up the value stream from the pacemaker process?
  8. How are materials supplied to the assembly and fabrication processes?
  9. How are materials obtained from upstream suppliers?
  10. How are employees trained in Lean procedures motivated to apply them?

I find these questions puzzling, for the following reasons:

  1. You don’t need to be on the shop floor to find the answers to questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 and 10.
  2. Questions 5 and  6, that are really about the shop floor, are leading. Asked in this form, they suggest that assembly and fabrication are indeed waste-free. What you are really after is finding out where the waste is, and where the processes lack capability or capacity.
  3. Question 4 implies that production is scheduled by heijunka on a pacemaker process and pull on other processes. The more general question is of how production is scheduled in the plant. As discussed above, only part of this answer is found on the shop floor.
  4. Question 10 implies that there should be a Lean training program. I don’t understand why training should be the only aspect of the company’s Lean program to rate a question. Before coming to the floor, I would ask whether the plant has such a program. On the shop floor, you should see its effects.

26 comments on “What to look for on a gemba walk

  1. Pingback: How to notice what really goes on in a factory

    • Michel, i didn`t understand what you meant by follow the production backwards sucha as a work piece. Would not it be to follow forward until the end?

      • I don’t view this as a firm rule. When you are dealing with assembled products, it is often easier to understand how they are made by starting from the end product, then go on to its major subsystems, its components, etc. When possible, it is actually a good exercise to take one unit apart and put it back together. For a fabrication or machining process, you can start from the blank and follow it forward.

  2. Comment in the Operational Excellence discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Great blog!
    I like very much the idea of managers asking questions (especially the ones for which you already know the answer) : it is a great way to ‘check’ whether operators understand lean and flow principles and their standard work. The purpose of this questioning then becomes to check whether they ‘know the answer’ or, ‘can they teach the manager how the process and the connections up- and downstream work’ ?
    If not, there is a need/opportunity for more coaching/training and improvement.

    @ Joe:

    Great article!
    In many companies, employees but even more managers are typically blind to the huge amount of waste on the Gemba. Most of the time however it is so obvious and countermeasures are so simple and straightforward.
    On many Gemba walks that I do, I typically have to say “in this place, the money is lying on the floor, you just have to bend over to grasp it, it’s a simple as that, no more effort needed…..”.
    I do like your anecdote: apparently people over there didn’t mind bending over for the cash but not for the other waste….

  3. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Hi Michel I know of Joe Paris and Takt Times as I see you guys all the time. What i did was called the fresh eyes approach. We could have leaders from other groups walk through and do a fresh eyes walk through and latter you would get your turn to walk through their areas. This worked good sometimes and later maybe a group of managers or outsiders would critique the areas.I could always see flaws or happenings on other lines were easy to see but one does not want to see flaws on their own operations often. Tagging flaws is ok but they must be careful where they put those tags can be a problem if placed in a critical location…learned from experience.The tag receipts must be given to the correct follow up people for corrective maintenance action and planning. Learn with great passion to become the eyes,ears,and nose of the operation.One can learn to see many things if you learn and listen to the detail of things happening before it happens,staying alert…. This is the kind of gemba I did everyday.

  4. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    For me the walk is tri-purpose: to SEE what I can detect but also to ASK questions and LISTEN to the problems the operators have.

  5. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Steve if the line is down 5-10minutes it is bathroom or coffee time. Down 15-20 minutes its 5S time. 20-30min. its team meeting time… Time is never to be wasted…I had to chase away many BB’s who were talking to operators while they were to be working. The operators who could not talk and work at the same time I mean…Also we used the team meeting as the worker platform to talk and vent every week for years and it did work good for us.One problem was if we had no break downs all week (which was rare) we would have the team meeting during the last 30min. of work on Friday and many would leave and skip the meeting…To offset this problem we would have the BB at the meeting or some other knowledgeable guest speaker. But I agree with you that listening is always the best policy at anytime.

  6. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I guess we have different techniques.
    In my last job, I had a day to assess the performance of a company. The best way to do it was to talk to as many senior managers as I could (all at the same time was best).
    Then I would walk the floor without the manager, as speak to as many employees as possible.
    This told me if what the managers think happens – really does happen.
    I also find out what the main complaints are, what keeps people from doing their jobs and what they would do to put it right.
    Blend both sets of results and add my own observations – which as usually confirmed by selective questioning – and I was able to make some pretty accurate assessments.
    I agree with your logic for some of the times and, depending on your definition of 5S, I might agree.
    I have found no one at equipment because
    * they were chasing spares
    * no raw materials delivery or Kanban.
    * they were trying to find out the next job
    It had not been decided what to run.
    * They were collecting changeover parts
    No SMED planning
    * There was no operator available
    No cross-training
    * They were waiting for drawings or instructions
    Often the drawings were not updated and had to corrected before issuing
    * They were collecting jobs to re-work
    * equipment breakdowns
    Varying degrees of equipment performance and maintenance standards
    – I find the main bottlenecks
    * I have experience of one company where the operators spent 20% of their week
    – one whole day – collecting the parts they needed.
    * The operator is waiting to find out if the current job is to be abandoned to switch to another.
    I could probably list lots more but, to make my point, the Gemba walk is to find out what needs improvement and will ususually not be raised at team meetings.
    I also find out what the management style is; from the above list, how well the production scheduling works; how the different departments get on; how good the stores work and what the main admin issues are.

    I guess the Gemba walk, like 5S, has degrees of complexity.

    I forgot to mention equipment shut down while operators were on breaks…

    For each hour’s break per day per operator, over a 40 hour shift, we create a 12.5% reduction in availability. If the company is running at capacity, this directly corresponds to a 12.5% drop in capacity.


  7. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Thanks Steve for the long list of excuses as we called them. I use to tell my teams we don’t make excuses ,we make engines…For a small hole can sink a great ship as poor Richard once said in Ben Franklins old book..As captain of the ship we are going to run a tight ship and require all to row at the same time is what makes the ship go fast…
    I guess you and I have vastly different experiences with Gemba from what you tell me but I had huge volumes of production and unionized processes and contracts to contend with. I respectfully have seen many of your examples over the years but I had to live with the teams and processes and take ownership of them.
    Though most were automation bottlenecks that can at times can be easily identified as it will just over cycle and back up the line rather quickly…I recall having the line down for 10 min. waiting for a parts and I would log and charge the down time to material handling dept. to pay the down time bill that gets rather expensive very quickly…
    Manufacturing plants have 6min./hour break time by UAW contract. All other time is work time and must accounted for all down time in daily reports…Steve I still like your saying that “you don’t have to be sick to get better”…I like to tell that to others now. Thanks and hope you are enjoying the Olympics in London as I’m .Bill Ryan.

  8. Comment in the Lean Six Sigma Canada discussion group on LinkedIn:

    They might be excuses, but I always confirm all points raised and, if found to be valid, which in pretty much all the cases mentioned were, I would set up a program to resolve the problems.

    The availability and speed issues were very rarely spotted by any company. They just assume that the speed the machine runs at is the speed it should -which we all know is rarely true and the speeds can be vastly slower.

    One textile factory shut down over 40 machines during breaks. All I had to do was confirm the tools would alarm and stop if there was a fault and we increased the profit by over £100K.

    I have found the points I raised to be particularly common in most of the companies I have reviewed.

    Also, by believing the operators and involving them in the solutions, I believe I avoided many of the resistance issues seen by Lean.



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  10. Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for…discussion group on LinkedIn:

    So it is all about changing your focus and why you go to gemba. Which is it are you going to be seen or to see. Understanding the difference can make all the difference in the way your production floor can run. Michel enjoyed your comments on Counting (being “The Count”) and Hunting for bugs.

  11. Comment in the PEX Network & IQPC – Lean Six Sigma & Process Excellence for…discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I like Danaher’s principle that you cannot be a Director in one of their companies unless you have spent 2 or 3 days building or modifying a production line with your own fair hands. That way they get to understand what the Gemba is really like

  12. Comment in the Lean CEO discussion group on LinkedIn:

    As a consultant visiting any plant, I can tell in five minutes if there is a chance to help. A quick visit to the workers restroom tells it all.

  13. Comment in the Lean CEO discussion group on LinkedIn:

    …understanding. As Covey said, “Seek first to understand.” I like to look for the balance between the strengths and weaknesses within the organization. It’s easy to point out problems. However, I find it much easier to begin a discussion on strengths and through good questioning arrive at similar outcomes. I think the first person to do something like this was Socrates. On the information I have read, he walked a lot. 😉

  14. Comment in the Lean & Kaizen discussion group on LinkedIn:

    Very nice article. I was working as a co-op at DENSO and we did Gemba walks, well, they did the walks when I was in class on those days. I knew what they were but only through a quick description of finding things that didn’t have a place or needed a change. This article went into greater detail to how I thought changes were made as well to what different techniques are used for Lean and Kaizen. Further, without having done the Gemba walks with the others or the manager, I took it upon myself to incorporate into my duties.

  15. New comment in the Lean Six Sigma Worldwide discussion group on LinkedIn:

    I think…First identify the seven wastes, ask the basic questions of the Lean tools, for example 5S´s, It´s necessary or unnecessary? Working or not working?, and have the lean thinking….all this it´s necessary?, and all the people need a basic training to identify the wastes and use his own lean thinking

  16. Comment in the Lean CEO discussion group on LinkedIn:

    We just conducted a gemba walk of a small print company in Alberta and within 20 minutes they had identified over 30 items needing to be moved, recycled or repurposed but it was the 4 safety issues they were blind to before the gemba that had the biggest impact.

  17. Comment in the Lean CEO discussion group on LinkedIn:

    For an effective Gemba Walk, consider starting by observing with an open mind, devoid of judgement. Do you see any leaders teaching just-in-time (andon)? Is the flow of work smooth? Is the work-in-process obvious? Is it piling up anywhere? What is the mood? Are people calm, unhurried?

    Then, you might ask some questions, in places where it’s unclear why things happen that way. Always be respectful, never derisive or dismissive.

    Once impediments are identified, make sure that thorough root-cause analysis happens as well, and see if you can help people to focus on limiting the amount of countermeasures-in-process as well.

    Repeat every so often.

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