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MBWA, introduced by HP in the 70s and popularised by management guru Tom Peters in the 80s has successfully taken generations of managers out from behind their desks to become more involved and better leaders. Is it now time to take this concept broader and to the next level?

Gemba could do this.

First introduced by Toyota in its lean manufacturing process, Gemba is a Japanese word for “the actual, or real, place” and is being adopted across all industries as a more focused way of getting not just managers, but everyone understanding where areas of improvement lie.

So, what is Gemba and how could it improve your business?

In a nutshell, it’s about getting people to ‘the actual place’ where tasks are being performed, having them observe the processes and understand from those performing them where any problems are found and/or where things could be improved. This is often referred to as a Gemba Walk.

Where Gemba differs from MBWA is the level of focus. The latter is a more unstructured approach, with managers interacting with staff where they work. Gemba, though, is focused and, to be successful, should follow a number of steps:

  1. Prepare – it’s critical that those to be observed understand what this is about. Without this, it could lead to unhappiness and morale problems as staff wonder why they’re being watched in this way. Let them understand that they, as people, are not being observed, but the processes and tools are, so that any problem areas can be identified for resolution.

2. Plan – map out which processes are to be observed (starting with looking at the flow of value in the business and determining with which processes to start) and the questions to be asked. Questions might include such things as which people/departments are involved in the process, what materials are used, what the actual process to be followed is and how it’s known (is it documented, for example), what areas of the process are particularly time-consuming and/or lead to difficulties, when / how often the process is carried out and what depends on the outcome.

3. Ask – the questions. Be clear that you’re focusing on the tasks and not the people carrying these out. They are NOT performance evaluations, but a way to improve processes.

4. Observe – the processes. Document your observations, only. Don’t suggest changes or improvements. They can come later. The Gemba Walk is simply to observe.

5. Follow-up – once you’ve completed a walk (or a series of walks), feed back your findings to people and allow them to add further suggestions if necessary.

6. Improve – based on the findings and any further feedback, implement improvements to the processes.

7. Review – after a period of time, repeat the Gemba Walk to observe whether the changes have improved the process flow and are delivering the expected results.

For optimal results, you should perform the walks at different times of the day, week and month to see if the process operations change at times.

Don’t rely on a written manual or ask people to work from it when observing the process – it’s important that they carry out their work as they normally do, and the walk might well uncover additional needs in terms of tools, procedures or documentation.

Depending on the environment it can also be useful for more than one person to observe a process – a team approach might provide additional insights, as can people of different levels within the organisation.

Of course, a Gemba Walk is not necessarily carried out just within the business. It can be expanded to all forms of interaction with your business and include customers and suppliers – many of whom are using your systems in an interactive online environment. Again, though, follow the same approach, taking particular care to explain to your customers / suppliers that you’re looking only to make things more efficient for people dealing with your business.

Implement Gemba as a part of your continuous improvement process within your TACK culture – it will not just improve processes, but morale, too, as staff will feel more accountable and empowered to suggest changes. After all, as supply-chain guru Dave Waters says, “If you aren’t improving you are going out of business.”


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P.S. Just in case you’re not sure, Gemba is pronounced with a hard G, as in Golf…

If you’d like to learn more, these related posts might help:

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