Why Gemba Walks Alone Aren’t Enough

Lean Manufacturing November 23, 2019
What leading manufacturers are doing to gain real-time visibility of their factory floor at all times and continuously capture worker’s input
Gemba Walks Small

The Gemba Walk, that staple of Lean Manufacturing, could be doing more harm than good. That was the finding of a study undertaken by researchers at Harvard. In a conclusion that might surprise everyone except those who actually work on the factory floor, they said, “... our study suggests that senior managers’ physical presence on their organizations’ frontlines was not helpful ...”

Now this statement needs qualifying. As the team dug deeper, they discovered that the problem was not the gemba walk itself but the type of improvement action it led to. High value issues, the kind management likes to address, seldom succumb to small-scale, fast-to-implement, improvements. Factory workers consulted during the gemba walk will contribute ideas, but if these aren't implemented, if nothing changes, enthusiasm will wane.

What if, rather than a weekly or monthly 'snapshot' visit, the gemba walk was supported in a continuous, always-on way? Perhaps that would make the gemba walks more successful and stimulate interest in making improvements in manufacturing. It might seem fanciful, but the right mobile app could make it practical. How about a virtual gemba walk?

Making Improvements, Continuously

People can't solve manufacturing problems from their desk or a conference room. That's the thinking behind the gemba walk: get out and see what's actually happening. Talk to the people who do the value-added work in the factory. Then act on their ideas and implement changes. On a return visit follow up with them to see if things have improved. Repeat.

Over time, in theory anyway, factory workers will grow more engaged in suggesting and making changes. Waste, in all its forms, will be reduced and manufacturing will become incrementally leaner and more efficient. So why did the Harvard study conclude otherwise?

Their reasoning was that senior managers want to focus on the wrong problems. Not that they are wrong from the business perspective, but that there's no clear connection to what happens on the factory floor. Let's dig deeper.

Senior managers are attuned to problems facing the business: quality issues, late deliveries or maybe excess raw material consumption. Naturally, these are the problems they hope to address with their visit to the factory floor.

For the factory workers themselves, these are not their biggest issues. They are wrestling with things like tools that are difficult to swap out, dirt that builds up on conveyors and temperamental machines that need nursing through each shift. These are the things they live with, day in and day out. Often they have ideas for how they could be solved, but these are not what senior managers ask about on their visits to the factory floor.

The result? Frustration builds as management appears to focus on the wrong things. Interest fades in contributing ideas and effort turns to cleaning and tidying those 'hot button' issues so as to avoid questions and new initiatives.

Working on the wrong problems is perhaps the most common way in which the gemba walk can go astray. It's not the only pitfall though.

In some factories the gemba walk devolves into an audit of housekeeping and safety. Important though these are, the walk should be an exercise of inquiry, not fault-finding.

Many factories work round the clock. Managers however prefer to conduct their walks during the day. This can result in them missing some problems, and perhaps some third shift workers with fresher perspective. Furthermore, factory workers aren't immune to 'recency' effects and are more likely to raise the current problem rather than the low-grade issues they've battled quietly for years. Likewise, there's a risk of hearing only complaints from more vocal workers that may not reflect everything that's going on.

When people do offer suggestions it's human nature to expect some feedback. If the gemba walk becomes a kind of information 'black hole' from which nothing ever returns, factory workers will stop putting things in. Prompt feedback is essential to encourage ideas and continuous improvement. A poorly-done gemba walk works the other way, discouraging input and contributions, and setting back employee engagement efforts.

Adding Value to the Gemba Walk

A gemba walk lets managers see what's happening on the factory floor. The intent is laudable, but shouldn't this be happening all the time, not just periodically at the time of a schedule gemba walk?

That's the thinking behind using a worker performance support application to complement the traditional gemba walk. Let's call it, a virtual gemba walk.

Enabling virtual gemba walks starts with digitally connecting frontline workers using mobile devices on the factory floor. Besides providing workers with information that helps them do their jobs better, it facilitates the capturing of problems and sharing of solutions in real-time. And unlike the suggestion boxes of yesterday, they support photos and video, they're easy to use, and there's transparency over how ideas are received and handled.

With digital communication capabilities (at Poka we call this a Factory Feed), workers can log issues as they occur and not just when they remember. They can ask for solutions from other work cells and departments, even from other factories running identical machines and processes. When the workers have ideas that will resolve production problems, big or small, they can submit these instantly.

Management has access to this continuous stream of information and can prepare for a gemba walk more effectively. In some cases, they can understand where the problems are, in real-time, and can channel and direct efforts as appropriate without waiting for the next gemba walk. Workers see where their ideas went and are involved in the changes. If this results in changes to SOPs, those can be made more quickly, and updated instructions are available soon after. It's a gemba walk, enabled by an innovative mobile app.

A worker performance support app makes sharing experience and knowledge from their workstations part of the routine. Better still, they can do it while the idea is still fresh in their minds. It also fosters real-time dialogue and collaboration which gives workers instant feedback, validation and recognition. This makes contributing ideas a more rewarding experience, so encouraging them and others to contribute more often.

Management can monitor the digital conversation in real-time and capture the data points they need on a continuous basis. This ensures they get the whole story as opposed to an anecdote-laden snapshot.

In short, a virtual gemba walk delivers faster problem identification and resolution along with worker empowerment and engagement. That has an immediate impact on both operations and the strategic business goals.

How Poka Supports Gemba Walks

Poka is a comprehensive performance support application trusted by leading manufacturers, such as Mars, Barry Callebaut, Danone and Bosch. Management at these companies use Poka to get closer to the gemba on a daily basis and as a result, manage daily operations in a more efficient and effective way.

Before adopting Poka, a global manufacturer of confectionery and other food products reviewed and approved improvement ideas only during their monthly meetings. Now their teams use the live news feed to review incoming ideas and have discussions as needed in real-time. Ideas are identified and alignment across CI teams established 80% faster than before. This, in turn, lets them get new SOPs published and out to workers faster, resulting in a reduction in the time to resolve problems.

Good Intentions Aren't Enough

You can't solve a problem until you understand it, but the purpose of the gemba walk goes deeper than just seeing for yourself. The intent is to not only see but to solicit and then act on improvement ideas. Unfortunately, as research conducted by academics at Harvard found, sometimes gemba walks aren't working as intended.  

Reasons include the walk being only a snapshot of what's happening and a failure to deliver on worker engagement that discourages further contributions. The solution is to conduct gemba all the time – a virtual gemba enabled by the Poka worker performance support app. While giving management an always-on view into manufacturing operations this enables and encourages worker participation in factory improvements. The results speak for themselves.

Continuous learning on the factory floor
Share this article Copy link