Gemba walks are the intentional opportunities that leaders must take to go and see how the work is done by employees using their standard processes and to humbly ask them questions to better understand why things are done as they are.*
From these opportunities, leaders meaningfully engage staff in continuous improvement while building employees’ problem solving skills. They also yield the observable truth surrounding the health of the process and the organization.
Doing a gemba walk well takes practice, and leaders must learn to ask the appropriate questions with the right mindset. It is not an interrogation or done to reach a preconceived conclusion. Rather, they are present to learn something new together with the employees who own the process and standard work being observed. Some additional, practical pointers:
• The job of the leader is not to solve problems but to build the team’s ability to do it for themselves.
• Leaders should avoid trying to be experts of the process; that role rightly belongs to the employees who live it every day.
• When leading by example, frequency of the gemba walk is less important than certainty the leader will show up as expected.
On a gemba walk, the work to be observed and visual aids used (other than tiered performance boards) do not change with levels of leadership. Scope and frequency may vary, but the senior leader’s gemba walk is the same as one carried out by lower management. The difference is in the intent.
At the front line, the activity is primarily targeted at maintaining and improving standard work of producing the product. At more senior levels, the intent is to continually improve the effectiveness of of the leadership processes, thus building further organizational leadership competency.
The senior leader does the same walk, looks at the same things and has the same conversations as the frontline supervisor. But afterward, the senior leader steps away from the work area and has a second conversation with the subordinate leader that is aimed at understanding the underlying problems in the management system that allowed observed abnormalities to happen.
Thus, the primary purpose of senior leadership’s gemba walks is to manage the process by which the leaders below them manage their people.
* The concepts discussed here are found in greater detail in Joe Murli’s The Lean Management System. Joe is an internationally recognized Lean practitioner who also is helping deploy the Arizona Management System in our agencies.
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