What are Gemba Walks and How do They Improve your Business?
Visiting the Gemba
What is the Gemba
Your Gemba walk is your walk in the workplace; the Gemba is the actual place where value is added to your products and your profits are generated. Too many managers, engineers and other “professionals” tend to avoid this area of the business for some reason!
But the Gemba is where everything happens, it is the most important part of your business and you neglect it at your peril. Taichii Ohno of Toyota production system fame would make his engineers stand in a chalk circle on the shop floor to observe what really happens and make notes regarding the seven wastes and other opportunities for improvement.
You should take every opportunity you can to visit the gemba to “look, listen and learn!”
Gemba Walks by James Womack
Gemba walks is the definitive work on the subject by the author who introduced the west to lean manufacturing.
Why spend time in the Gemba
Unless you spend time to observe what actually happens in the Gemba then you will never truly understand what is happening (or not happening in many cases). It is by taking a deep breath and just trying to observe your working environment to see what actually happens (not what is written in your procedure manuals) that you can get a feel for how much waste there is in your business.
By going to your workplace to look for the symptoms of the seven wastes of manufacturing (TIMWOOD; Transport, Inventory, Motion, Waiting, Over Production, Over Processing, Defects) you can start to highlight the many areas that you have for improvement and to save money. Remember every penny not spent is added straight back to your profit!
This process of going to the gemba and “wearing your muda spectacles” can reap huge benefits, an experienced consultant will be able to walk through your workplace and tell you all of the ills that affect your company very quickly.
Taiichi Ohno and the Gemba
Taiichi Ohno is Toyota's most prominent figure and is often credited with the creation of the Toyota Production System as we know it. He would often spend a huge amount of his time just stood on the production floor observing what was really happening.
It is said that he would draw a chalk circle on the floor of the factory and make his engineers stand within the circle to observe what was really going on at the Gemba. It is here lead that we are following when we go to the Gemba.
Gemba Walks Video
Walking the gemba to look at what really happens should be part of your daily routine, just stand and watch any operation ongoing in your organization and see what is really happening, take notes if you like. Ask the people “what are you doing?” “Why do you do it like that?” and any other question that comes to mind to try to fully understand what is really going on and identify those wastes in your organization that are costing you money!
Go check the visual management signals in your workplace, this article on visual management will give you a good list of what should expect to find.
If you don't have a daily management routine walk around then introduce one; this is a formal review of management information and other aspects of visual management conducted by a number of your management team at a set time each and every day.
Where is the Gemba?
Gemba case study
I have worked as a consultant for several years and have had the opportunity to observe several hundred companies; below I will just give you a few examples of what you can see by just stopping to watch what really is happening at the Gemba.
Adding value at the Gemba
I visited a modern green field site set up based on lean ideas, the flow lines were very nicely setup and the management were located in offices on a mezzanine above the manufacturing area so that they could see what was happening. They however were having major problems in meeting deliveries to their customers with many overdue orders.
I spent the first 10 minutes of my visit stood on this mezzanine after my opening chat with the operations director, he was busy with an important call from an angry customer who was complaining about the late delivery of his products!
When he finished he wanted to take me on a tour of the facility but I suggested that we just stopped where we were and watched for ten more minutes. I then asked him how many of his people were working (maybe 40 to 50 people on the factory floor below), he looked again and said all bar the two guys trying to hide at the rear of the stores having a cigarette where they shouldn’t!
I then asked him “who is adding value?” By this I meant doing something to the product that the customer would actually pay him for. After a few minutes of careful observation and explanation of what each person in the factory was doing it was clear that only ONE person was doing something that the customer was willing to pay for; the remainder were moving product, inspecting, reworking, discussing drawings, finding tools etc and one man was operating a small press!
This was a real eye opener for the Operations Director and started a whole new reorganization of working practices within the factory, as well as the removal of the blinds on the office windows on the mezzanine.
Quality improvement at the Gemba
Gemba Problem Solving
I was working as a consultant for a first tier supplier in the automotive industry that was on the verge of losing all of their business due to quality problems. They were employing some 30 additional staff to 100% inspect incoming goods and finished goods in an attempt to stem the tide of rejects reaching their customer.
All of their rejects were related to the main sub-assembly which was supplied by their sister company which was a larger part of the same group. They too were employing many additional inspectors to find the problems and gather data as to what the root causes were.
The data collected showed a high level of defects across many areas of the sub-assembly – a large welded frame. But where was the action?
I visited the supplier to view the process and took an accompanied walk around the factory floor with the 3 month old analysis of the defects to look at what the process was. As I walked I watched what the operators actually did when loading the various welding fixtures within the automated robot welding cells;
Observation of the Factory Floor
Many of the components were balanced carefully in place due to missing or broken clamps in the welding fixtures – a problem that the operators claimed to have reported several times, but had done their best to maintain production figures!
When I spoke to the engineers responsible for the area they said that the fixtures were still within their calibration, therefore no action was required from them so they had not been to look!
It took 30 minutes to find that the problem and other location issues was visible across all fixtures in the process, it took a further 2 hours to source and fit new clamps and other minor repairs (They wanted to document the problems and put an action plan together to fix the problems over the coming weeks without interrupting production - but as a firm believer in the principle of JFDI I managed to convince them to "Just do it!")
The result was the elimination of 100% of the defects the customer had been complaining about for over 3 months!
Relocation of Management and Engineering to the Gemba
The engineers, supervisors and managers of this company were relocated into office space in the center of the factory floor as a direct result of this visit along with other improvements to daily meetings and a complete overhaul of their preventative maintenance system!
This was a major series of quality problems that had existed for several months that had necessitated the hiring of around 40 extra inspectors at supplier, the company and even at the customer to try to insulate the customer from the problems, but no one had actually gone and looked at the process! To cap it all this was a large automotive first tier supplier with QS9000 (TS16949) accreditation.
Visiting the Gemba
If you have any questions regarding making gemba walks to observe what really happens in your business then please leave them in the space below.