A great lesson from one of the most successful companies of our time. They created what is called the Gemba Walk which roughly translated is, "Where the work takes place". In the Military we call this engaged leadership or battlefield circulation.
Lessons learned from a Sergeant Major.
The Power of Engaged Leadership
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Toyota developed the Gemba Walk. The global automaker pioneered many of the Lean and Six Sigma practices used today by organizations around the world. The Toyota Production System and its focus on eliminating all waste from an operation is required learning for anyone serious about implementing consistent process change.
As with all smart companies, Toyota understands that the commitment and actions of leaders influence an entire operation. Rather than work in a vacuum, the company developed the Gemba Walk to give managers and executives the chance to visit the production floor and see how a specific operation is done.
This in-person observation allows leaders to see the difference between what they assumed is happening opposed to what is actually happening. It also gives them a chance to interact with the people doing the job and see exactly where it is done, as opposed to imagining it from a far-away conference room.
But it’s important to remember what a Gemba Walk is not. A Gemba Walk is a way to gather information through observation and interaction with workers. It is not a time:
To find fault and call out employees on it
To try to quickly implement a change on the spot
To disregard employee input. Getting that input is one of the main goals of a Gemba Walk
By focusing on the operation, listening to employees and taking the time after a Gemba Walk to reflect on what action is needed, leaders foster a cooperative atmosphere in their business. They also avoid creating the fear that Gemba Walks are set up for punitive action against individual employees, a sure way to decrease morale and make employees reluctant to share information.
Adaptation of the Gemba Walk
While it started in manufacturing, the Gemba Walk has been implemented in many industries. That’s because no matter what kind of work is being done, a Gemba Walk can help managers and project team members reconcile the vertical and horizontal nature of all organizations.
In short, organizations are structured vertically, which fosters the idea of people “below” looking to those “above” for leadership. However, the actual product or service an organization offers moves horizontally through an organization and eventually reaches customers – which is what process leaders should care more about than business structure.
Some leaders get it. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, used a type of Gemba Walk by having all managers work for a time in customer service. This gives them better perspective on how the company interacts directly with the public.
It also has been adopted by some in the service industry. Time spent with workers who interact with the public gives’ leaders a fresh perspective into customer wants and can lead to developing new services and products to meet projected demands.
To understand the power of a Gemba Walk, simply watch an episode of the television series “Undercover Boss.” The show involves having CEOs work anonymously with front line workers. Two things typically happen: the CEO is surprised at the details of how the work is done and by the end of the show, changes are made to make the process better for both employees and customers.
Getting Employee Buy-In
A key component of a Gemba Walk is to get input from employees on what is going right and what is going wrong in a specific operation. A way of getting employee buy-in is to explain how the benefits of a Gemba Walk go beyond improving a product or the company’s bottom line.
Many projects result in a much safer work environment. Process improvement projects uncover areas where simple changes in a process can result in far fewer safety concerns. That’s good for workers as well as a company – the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates businesses spend $170 billion a year on costs associated with workplace injuries and illness.
Done properly, a Gemba Walk can have a dramatic impact on an organization. By closely observing “the place where value is created” and listening to employees, project leaders and business managers give themselves a fresh perspective on the business and new insight into how changes can make products and services better for customers.
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