'Gemba' is a Japanese word meaning 'the real place' and describes personal observation of work – where the work is happening. The gemba walk is an activity that takes management to the 'coalface' to look for waste and opportunities. It is the process of talking to people on the front line and carefully observing the work in action.

Why use gemba?

Gemba denotes the action of seeing the actual process, understanding the work, asking questions and learning. It is also known as one fundamental part of Lean management philosophy (in short, continuous improvement). The idea of gemba is that when problems are visible, the best improvement ideas will come from going to the gemba – the place where value is created.

It is designed to allow leaders to ask about the practised standards, gain knowledge about the work status and build relationships with employees. The objective of a gemba walk is to understand the value stream and its problems rather than to review results or make superficial comments.

What is gemba?

Gemba is a Japanese word that literally means 'the real place' and is used to describe personal observation of work — where the work is happening. The gemba walk, much like Management By Walking Around (MBWA), is an activity that takes management to the front lines to look for waste and opportunities.

Unlike focus groups and surveys, gemba visits are not scripted or bound by what one wants to ask. It is the process of carefully observing to see where things are, not as they should be. Sometimes there is less walking involved and more standing and watching.

How do we do it?

A gemba walk is not an opportunity to find fault in others while they are being observed. It is also not a time to enforce policy adherence (except possibly for safety problems or gross violations). If a gemba walk is used harshly, employees will shut down and resistance to change will rise rapidly. A gemba walk needs to be approached from a place of mutual respect and interest in making things faster, safer, easier and just plain better.

A gemba walk is also not the time to solve problems and make changes. This is a time of observation, input and reflection. That does not mean it is the time to ignore operator ideas for improvements or stifle brainstorming, but rather to be open and observe the real thing – see what is really happening. If ideas or complaints arise, note them and make sure they are followed up on after the walk. Be mindful not to focus on the details too quickly without seeing the whole.