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Gemba

By Graphic Products Editorial Staff

gemba example workers walk-around

Gemba is one of the key principles of lean manufacturing and the Toyota Production System. Gemba is roughly translated from the Japanese as the real place. In this sense, real refers to where the action is happening. To illustrate, Japanese television reporters covering the devastating 1995 earthquake in Kobe, Japan introduced themselves on-camera standing before a site in the quake zone as “reporting live from gemba in Kobe.” If your focus were on improving customer service in a call center, gemba would be the call center floor and workstations. For manufacturing gemba is the production floor. The idea of gemba is simple: go to the place, look at the process, and talk with people.

The Gemba Walk

The most common way the principles of gemba are employed is through a gemba walk. This means to go out and see firsthand what is happening. Think about TV shows in which detectives solve murder mysteries. Do they sit in their offices and figure out what happened? No. They go to the place where the murder happened. They talk with people in person. The investigation takes them to many places. They go and look, they talk with people, and they physically observe the location and what is happening there. Solving business problems is just like solving a murder mystery. A gemba walk is the best way to collect information to get the real story about what is happening.

The Purpose of a Gemba Walk

A gemba walk first has a purpose, like reporting or performing and investigation. It is not aimless wandering with a hope that a problem might be spotted. You must know why you are going on a gemba walk and what you are looking to find.

There are two common reasons for a gemba walk:

  1. To find the cause of a known problem. A problem has been identified and a solution is being sought.
  2. To find possible sources of waste. Managers should go on a gemba walk at least once a week, with the goal of finding previously unidentified waste. 

Preparation is needed before going on a gemba walk.

Before a Gemba Walk

When detectives begin a murder investigation, they typically start at the scene of the murder to look for evidence before something changes or the evidence is removed. For purposes of a preparation example prior to the detectives “Gemba Walk” we’ll call this a generic data collection stage. A lot of data is collected before it is compromised or disappears, but it may not be fully understood at that time. This is preparation for a gemba walk itself which is the detective’s investigation.

Unless there has been an accident, business managers do not need to rush to gemba to collect data. In business the initial research comes first, often taking the form of using a tool such as a value stream map. This is a flow diagram that provides an overview of a process and how value is added throughout the process.

Creating a value stream map involves knowing both the process, and what the customer values. Just as the police detective strives to understand the motives of possible suspects, the manager needs to understand the motives of customers. Why do customers buy? Their motives are based on the value they gain by purchasing your product. Anything that does not add value to your product (from the customer's perspective) is waste.

Once a tool such as value stream mapping, or VSM, has been created, it is easier to ask intelligent questions and see waste during a gemba walk.

Gemba and Automated Data Collection

With many systems and processes being automated and computer controlled, data is often readily available. There is a temptation to consider this data as bringing gemba into our office. We can “see” everything that is happening on the shop floor by monitoring the data on our computer. That's not gemba.

While data may provide information on machines and automated systems, and it is very useful for spotting some types of problems, it does not provide the complete picture. Only by going to where the work is being done can we get the complete picture. For example, individual machines may be running in an optimal state, but some of the tasks people need to do to keep the machines running may not be optimal.

This brings up a question about the right data being collected. For example, the data may show that the production process is humming along, turning out your products perfectly, with no defects. But the shipping department can't seem to get customer's orders shipped on time. Customers are getting angry because they are receiving their orders days after they should have arrived. So we have a problem in the shipping department... right? Maybe not.

What if the production department is using a batch process that focuses on making large quantities of each item in your product line? Let's say that a customer orders ten each of products A, B, and C. The production department, however, does not make a batch of product “C” until two weeks after the customer placed their order. As a result their order is held up in the shipping department until all three products are available.

Gemba means to physically go to where the working is being done, observe what is happening, and talk with the people doing the work. A gemba walk would reveal the partial orders sitting in the shipping department, waiting to be completed. A few questions asked during a gemba walk would have revealed the reasons for the orders not being shipped, and the problem would be solved.

The point is, going to the place where the work is taking place, having conversations and developing relationships will result in a better understanding of what is actually happening, and it will reveal new opportunities to make improvements.

Five Principles for Successful Gemba Walks

A good rule of thumb is that managers should go on a gemba walk at least once a week. In addition, it can be helpful for people in non-management positions, such as engineers, to be trained on gemba and to be going on regular gemba walks.

The following five basic principles apply to all gemba walks:

  1. A gemba walk should always have a specific purpose. Is the reason for a gemba walk to look for waste? Solve a problem? Or some other purpose, such as familiarization with a work area?
  2. Be familiar with the area you'll be visiting. Learn about the work being done, the process, and the equipment being used before doing a gemba walk. In particular “being familiar” means that you know where to go. It is important to go to the places where there is activity, where the work is actually taking place.
  3. Understand the overall process. What is the overall context of what you are seeing? How does the work area you are observing fit into the overall context of what your company does or produces? What types of input does this work area receive, and what happens to the output? (Where does it go and how is it used?)
  4. Because we interpret everything through our experiences, we need to be sure we correctly understand what we are seeing is reality. Our “biases” can color what we see. What is normal? What are the expectations? Talk with those doing to the work to determine the reality of what you are seeing. Ask, why is this happening?
  5. This brings us to the “Five Ws.” These are five questions to ask in order to better understand what you are seeing. On a gemba walk it is important to talk with the people doing the work. Be truly interested in their work, because understanding what they are doing is critical to finding waste and solving problems. Look to learn the answers to the “Five W” questions:
    • What is the task?
    • Who does this task?
    • Where is a task taking place?
    • When is this task done?
    • Why is the task being done?

    Add a sixth question:

    • How is the task being done? What are the steps required for the task to be successfully completed?

Using these six questions will help you to get a complete picture of the work area, and build a better understanding of what is really happening.

Signs and Labels Improve Gemba Walk Results

Signs and labels help keep people safe. They let people know where they are and how to get to where they are going. They identify work stations and work areas. They provide information about process flows by identifying pipes, valves, pumps, fans and blowers, tanks, vessels, and other equipment.

One form of a gemba walk involves starting at the beginning of a process and walking to follow the flow through the process. For example, in a power plant the gemba walk might start in the coal yard and end in the switch yard. Signs and labels provide important information throughout that gemba walk, and those signs and labels often come from DuraLabel custom label printers. That's because DuraLabel printers, and tough-tested supplies, make quality signs and labels that last. That's why they are backed by the best warranties in the business.