Most frontline teams in my organization are not used to being asked to improve their own process. Like most organization in transition most improvement that has taken place in the organization in the past was management driven and usually owned and executed by outside experts like consultants and project managers. As we transition into a system where teams are asked to be responsible for improving their processes every single day one of the most powerful tools management has is the gemba walk. There are many reasons why the gemba walk is not only an important tool, but an essential tool in a Lean transformation. Here are just a few:
- Gemba walks are one of the most important methods for teaching management Lean. It takes Lean out of the conceptual world and forces management to learn by doing.
- Gemba walks demonstrate a behavior change from management. It shows that management is curious about the work and interested in seeing the real problems. Early on they also demonstrate to the teams that everyone is in the change together. Management is learning alongside the teams they are coaching.
- Gemba walks allow management to begin to understand the problems that they create and forces them to begin to take responsibility for solving the gaps in their management system. They see firsthand the challenges created by unclear or too many priorities, silo thinking, narrow job classifications, etc.
- Gemba walks teach leaders how to set clear expectations and have the discipline to follow-up to see progress. In order to do this effectively the manager must understand the content of the work; know how to see problems, and to know how far a team can improve over a set increment of time.
In several post in the past I have talked about some of the advice I give leaders as the learn how to effectively lead gemba walks. As my own experience has grown some of my thinking has advanced. Here are a couple of tips that I hope help:
- Gemba walks can only be effective if leaders are disciplined, consistent and organized. This is why having management standard work is so important. In our organization we create visual systems (Kamishibai boards) that track adherence to management system work to help reinforce this discipline. These boards track the frequency, sequence and content of what should be checked during each gemba walk and clearly make visible that the walks are happening as scheduled. As managers build these boards they need to determine how often they will visit each team (less frequently the higher you are in the organization), and then the board makes it transparent to the teams how often they can expect a visit thus reinforcing the management responsibility.
- Early on it is important to have some coaching help during gemba walks. It is nice to have a Sensei to go with you, but it is also effective to walk with a leader that has more experience then you do if a Sensei in not available.
- During each walk a leader should ask the team a series of open ended questions to assess the current situation, challenge the current thinking and prepare the team for taking the next step. If you are just getting starting it is very helpful to have a set of standard questions you always ask the team as well as a system to track notes from past gemba walks. The leader should take the time to review their notes and prepare their questions so that they respect the time of the team.
- Gemba walks and visual management go hand and hand. Without visual systems gemba walks often end up being disorganized, not focused on data and worst of all they turn into PR visits or complaining sessions. Gemba walks are probably the most important tool in helping set and maintain the expectation that teams make their processes visible.
- Finally, at the end of each gemba walk the leader should summarize what they and the team has learned and then clearly define the follow-up items that the team and the leader need to resolve. Often the due date will be during the next gemba. This is the most powerful part of the gemba, because when done effectively it helps move the team to the next level of improvement and at the same time gives leadership credibility as the leaders solve some of the systems problems that get in the teams way. In order to do this well a leader needs to have a system to track on follow up items. If they ask a team to try x by y date the leader better show up to check or they will lose credibility quickly. When they do show up to check on the follow up just like they said they would teams start to see that management is serious and they will invest the appropriate time in the improvement activities moving forward. Something very important as teams begin to learn how to improve their own processes.