Shop floor management, decisions based on first hand knowledge

by Mascha Westen-Reinders Folmer, Reinders Folmer Consultancy, 26 March, 2021

In blog #3, I talked about Lean leadership and its 5 main components:

  • Improvement culture: Striving for perfection. Failure in order to improve and learn
  • Self-development: Lean leaders lead by example. New leadership abilities are vital
  • Employee development: Long-term education of employees. Continuous learning
  • Gemba: Shop floor management. First-hand knowledge as a basis for decision making
  • Hoshin Kanri: Customer focus. Aligned goals on all levels

Today I will elaborate on the Gemba and how you can manage based on first-hand knowledge.

The Gemba is where the value is added and where you get first-hand knowledge

What is the Gemba and what do you do, when you go there?

When you look up Gemba on Wikipedia you find the following explanation:

Genba (現場, also romanized as gemba) is a Japanese term meaning “the actual place”. Japanese detectives call the crime scene genba, and Japanese TV reporters may refer to themselves as reporting from genba. In business, genba refers to the place where value is created; in manufacturing the genba is the factory floor. It can be any “site” such as a construction site, sales floor or where the service provider interacts directly with the customer (1).

In Lean we advocate to ‘go to the Gemba’, because there you can see first-hand what is happening. You can get information there, that you can never get from numbers and reports alone. Yet I’ve seen many leaders struggle to go to the Gemba, because they don’t know what to do or ask. They get all kinds of complaints from their employees and feel that they are expected to solve them all. For those leaders I gathered some tips on how to do a ‘Gemba walk’. First of all there are 3 important elements to understand:

  1. Go and see. The main idea of the Gemba walk is for managers and leaders on every level to take regular walks around the shop floor and to be involved in finding wasteful activities.
  2. Ask why. A Gemba walk’s main objective is to explore the value stream in detail and locate its problematic parts through active communication. A good leader is always eager to listen rather than talk. Here is why you may use different techniques such as 5 whys in order to identify problematic parts of the process.
  3. Respect people. Keep in mind that a Gemba walk is not a “boss walk”. Pointing fingers and blaming people is exactly what you don’t have to do. You are not there to judge and review results. You are there to collaborate with the team and find problems together. Try to focus on finding the weak spots of the process, not of the people.

If you follow the next steps, you should be able to enjoy your Gemba walk and learn a lot

1. Prepare your Gemba walk. Decide which Gemba to go to and what Lean element to focus on, this could be waste, efficiency, safety. Prepare a list of open questions you would like to ask, related to the Lean element you’ve chosen. Some examples are:

  • What are you responsible for?
  • Where did you learn to do this task?
  • What happens next to the items you produce?
  • When are the items you make needed by the next group?
  • Who would you ask for additional tools that are needed?
  • Where is the personal safety equipment kept?
  • What happens when there is a defect in something you produce?

2. Inform the team. Make sure you let them know that you will be doing a Gemba walk in their process, that a Gemba walk is a common element of Lean and that the goal is continuous improvement. This will help them feel more confident and more willing to help.

3. Observe the process. You are on a Gemba walk and not on an appraisal round, so your focus should be on what is happening in the process, where the bottlenecks, waste and inefficiencies occur. When you give the teammember the feeling that you are judging them, they will surely show signs of resistance.

4. Take someone along. An extra pair of eyes and someone to discuss your findings with is always good. Especially someone from another part of the company, with no or little knowledge of the process. They see different things, because they don’t have the ‘routine blindfold’ yet.

5 Follow the process flow. When you follow 1 product through the process from beginning to end, it will be easier to identify the potential problem areas. When you improve those, you will improve your whole process. So fix the bottlenecks first, instead of fixing the fact that some employees don’t have enough work to to.

6. Make sure to take notes and photo’s. Don’t suggest any solutions and don’t promise any quick fixes, but first gather all information about the total process. Afterwards an A3-process or PDCA-process can help to find the biggest problems and their causes and the best solutions for preventing it from happening again, can be found.

7. Make sure you follow-up on your Gemba walk. If people never hear anything about what you did with the information, they will be less willing to help next time. Even if you didn’t find anything significant, share what you’ve observed and learned. If there are significant things, inform them what will be done with it and when.

I hope your next Gemba walk will be a bit more pleasurable and useful. Don’t give up if it doesn’t go as planned the first couple of times. This is a learning process too, both for you and the teams.

If you are interested in Gemba walks, but not sure how to do this, or do you have any questions? Feel free to contact me for more information.