There is a pretty good explanation of the concept of the Gemba Walk in Wikipedia. Too bad so very few managers have read it and taken it to heart. Most, it seems from my fairly extensive experience, have turned the idea of the Gemba Walk into some convoluted management fop.
“Gemba Walk is designed to allow leaders to identify existing safety hazards, observe machinery and equipment conditions, ask about the practiced standards, gain knowledge about the work status and build relationships with employees.”
“The objective of Gemba Walk is to understand the value stream and its problems rather than review results or make superficial comments.”
“… the principal Lean education for executives comes via structured gemba walking with a sensei-coach.”
There are a couple of operative points in those statements that are sorely lacking in Gemba Walks as they are most commonly practiced.
“The objective of Gemba Walk is to understand the value stream” To understand the value stream one has to walk the value stream. The whole thing. From end to end. You can’t simply charge out to the factory floor and ignore all of the font end stuff, looking at operations at random or in isolation. Problems are rarely solved - root causes are rarely identified - without the context of the value stream.The bulk of the waste can typically be found - or caused - in part of the value stream outside of the factory floor..
It seems to be a product of the deeply held assumption that all management is inherently good and necessary and all problems begin, and manifest themselves among the direct labor folks. As a result, the waste in order entry, credit analysis, having engineers shuffle paperwork to put together shop specifications, and horsing around in the bowels of ERP is ignored. The Gemba Walk usually bypasses that and heads straight for the only folks actually creating value in an effort to straighten them out. As such, the Gemba Walk is an ineffective waste of time.
“Gemba Walk is designed to allow leaders to … gain knowledge” “the principal Lean education for executives comes via structured gemba walking” This requires far more humility than most managers seem willing and able to demonstrate on a Gemba Walk. It basically means accepting the fact that you cannot solve problems at the Gemba because you don’t know enough to solve problems. The manager is there to learn, and not to be some brilliant all-powerful, problem-solving superstar who has descended from the office to fix production’s problem.
The Gemba Walk is all about learning and very little about fixing. The structure and process was intended for it to be a cascading teaching tool – the senior folks go on walk, after walk, after walk with a lean teacher until they understand how to see the whole value stream and understand the waste – then for them to lead walk after walk after walk with the next level until they get it, and so forth.
It is not for the occasional swooping in by senior management to the floor to indicate interest and concern – rarely genuine. And it is not some feeble substitute for fixing the problems created by functional silos – hauling the various functional leaders down to the floor so they can slam in quick fixes arising from their silo. That – which is too often the case – is not a Gemba Walk so much as it is a Gemba Strut – a public display of leadership that looks like so many peacocks putting on a show of support not backed up by real commitment. And it does more harm than good.