Frontline Engagement and Development 

Walking the gemba is the process of developing people. Oftentimes, waste is hidden and covered with additional resources and band-aid solutions.  In completing a gemba walk leaders are beginning to understand how well the organization is finding issues, determining their causes, and solving them. We’ve likely all had experiences where when an issue arises, people push through, put in overtime and extra effort to get past the issue and meet a deadline.  Then, life goes back to normal. No one considers examining why the issue/backlog came to be in the first place.  Eventually, with time, we convince ourselves that this is ok and part of normal operations by naming it – busy season.  The truth is, there may be ups and downs in demand, but oftentimes, waste within our processes make those ups significantly more difficult than they need to be. Focused observation is necessary to train everyone at every level to see waste. 

On a gemba walk, through discussion with frontline staff, leaders will be able to identify if issues are being overlooked or ignored.  If they are, there is an opportunity to teach/coach on the importance of problem identification and resolution in continuously improving practices.   

Leaders are training others at all levels in the organization to see waste and problems in the workplace.  This walk focuses on determining if people are experiencing abnormalities/variances from standard work. If they are, the leader should be initiating a conversation on possible root causes and analysis methods which could be used to uncover the root cause.  By initiating a conversation, leaders and frontline workers are better able to understand why problems are occurring.  Leaders learn this by listening to the people who deal with the problems every day as part of their work.  With the root cause determined, corrective action plans can be designed and implemented. It may be that a corrective action does not achieve the desired result and therefore a course correction is needed. This is an opportunity to continue to cycle through PDCA! 

 At this stage leaders should be helping the frontline through the problem-solving cycle to develop their skills and potentially using an A3 to guide their conversation.  At this stage of evolution, it is key that leaders ask challenging questions of the team to ensure that different perspectives are being considered. 

In February our them was Gemba Walks. Throughout the month we have been sharing articles about Gemba walks on social media and last week we had an interactive session discussing and sharing with both members and non-members. 

Gemba walks derive from the Japanese word Gemba (or genba), meaning “the real place,” or “where the truth lies.” Going to the gemba means going to where the works happens, going to see for yourself and observing the true condition. Gemba walks are an opportunity for an organization and its leaders to stretch their thinking and perceptions through focused review and interaction. 

In my experience with lean and improvement I have learned the critical importance of the PDCA Plan Do Check Act cycle. It is this cycle that is the root of all improvement. I have found that many organizations and individuals spend the majority of their time on the Plan and Do stages of the cycle and far less time on checking and acting. This is where I believe Gemba walks fit – on a walk you are checking for issues and waste, checking for standard process, checking that processes are working as designing and check that corrective actions are being taken. 

This evolution follows Tuckman’s model of group development: Forming, Norming, Storming and Performing. The model of group development was first proposed by Bruce Tuckman in 1965, who maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for the team to grow, to face up to challenges, to tackle problems, to find solutions, to plan work, and to deliver results.  Sounds a lot like changing an organization's culture to focus on the process and continuously improve, doesn’t it? 


​Aligned with each stage of evolution, Gemba walks have four key purposes. When conducting a walk, the purpose and focus of the walk will be very dependent on the team’s current stage of evolution.  These are the, creation of standard work, adherence and sustained improvement of standard work, frontline engagement and development and lastly instilling a culture of continuous improvement. 

Creation of Standard Work 

Many processes in an organization do not have a documented standard.  This lack of standards leads to variability amongst employees.  As a result, you will sometimes see some people who have been in a position for a very long time excelling in a position while newer people struggle.  This is because, with time, those individuals were able to make improvements to the process.  However, since processes aren’t documented, only they are able to benefit from those improvements.  Establishing standard work then creates a base from which everyone can make improvements. 

In this first stage, the Gemba walk should focus on stabilizing operations.   

To create stability, leaders should be engaging frontline staff to determine their level of understanding of the value they add to the organization.  If people are uncertain of how their work contributes to the overall goals of the organization, this is a coaching opportunity. In engaging the frontline staff, leaders are seeking to determine if a standard exists for the process.  If there isn’t a standard, standard work needs to be established for processes which touch the value stream.  Documenting the way in which things are done can take time but without a standard, there is no base from which to improve.  Documentation does not need to be fancy but it would be ideal if standards followed a standard method of documentation.

If standards do not exist, there is no need to continue to explore the next stages of focus with the employees.  It is impossible to move on to confirmation of adherence or problem solving without a baseline process established.  Standards drive behaviour. 

By focusing on the process to achieve desired results, it creates an awareness in the minds of others necessary to stimulate continuous improvement thinking and idea generation. By going to the gemba to understand how the process works, leaders can also identify when resources and processes aren’t aligned with each other.  As such, walking the gemba can help ensure alignment of the efforts of all teams. 

A gemba walk at this stage provides an avenue for leadership to demonstrate their commitment to Lean and engage the workforce in a discussion about the importance of Lean.   

Leaders also gain an understanding of how, where and when the organization is seeing the benefits of continuous improvement.  This supports the breaking down of silos which exist in the business, sharing of solutions, and wide-spread implementation to support rapid improvement across the entire organization. 

No matter the stage of evolution, there are four principles that every leader must follow if they are conducting Gemba Walks: Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect, Follow-up. These four principles are key in the success of walking the Gemba.  Leaders need to be experiencing and understanding processes, challenging why we do things a certain way and challenging their team to think the same. While they are doing this, they MUST be showing respect for those on their team.  Without this, no trust is present and the team will not be able to move forward. Lastly it is important that follow-up is part of the outcome of walking the gemba, determine what supports the team needs, documenting corrective actions, establish timelines and checking back again to see if actions taken had the desired result. 

Because change is a process, and the shift in thinking that comes from gemba walks takes time, there is a natural evolution that gemba walks take to achieve the ultimate goal of a continuous improvement culture.  The evolution can be broken into four parts: 

  • Stabilizing Operations 
  • Confirmation of process adherence 
  • Problem solving skill building/coaching 
  • Continuous improvement culture 

LPAS Monthly Event: February 13, 2019

Sharing and Learning between individuals from a variety of industries is what makes these sessions so valuable! 

Instilling a Culture of Continuous Improvement 

The fourth and most powerful reason to walk the gemba is to instill a culture of continuous improvement. 

We all know that change doesn’t just happen on its own.  We need to focus on an outcome/issue/or way of being in order to create change.  As such, to achieve continuous improvement, there is need to focus on the process not only the result.  Traditionally, workplaces have focused on the result.  We can’t continue to operate this way and expect change to simply happen.  To create real change, managers must change how they lead the organization every day.  This means focusing on how results are achieved not simply IF they have been achieved.   

Gemba Walks

Jenni Gasson - Lean Practitioners Association of Saskatchewan

Adherence and Sustained Improvement of Standard Work 

At times, even if there is a documented standard, in talking with people at the front line it’s quickly determined that the standard is out of date with how the work is actually completed. 

Additionally, it is often the case that people will revert to the old way of doing things slowly over time.  This is especially true when issues arise and people are called upon to fight fires.  New, more effective processes, are thrown aside and people go back to the ‘comfortable’ way of doing things.   

Changes both internally and externally means that there is a constant need to change today’s best practice.  Gemba walks establish a formal, standardized process to review the continuous improvements that frontline workers are making.  This improves the likelihood that improvements are sustained and provides a platform for the improvements to be shared and implemented elsewhere. 

If people are not following the established standard, there is no point in moving to the next evolutionary stage of looking at problem solving because it is impossible to identify problems with the existing standard if it is not being consistently applied.