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Taking a Gemba Walk in Your Machine Shop

June 20, 2015 / , , , ,


As any lean manufacturing expert will attest, improvement initiatives need top-down support to be effective. Everyone—from the CEO and vice president of operations to the floor supervisors and operators—needs to be on board to achieve real, sustainable results.

However, leadership isn’t “committed” simply because they fund a lean program or give the okay to implement a lean tool; improvement decisions can’t be made in an ivory tower.

Change—effective change—needs to start at the ground level, where the work is happening and the value is created. This place, defined as “gemba” in lean manufacturing terms, is believed to be the key to unlocking true transformation.

“Gemba,” the Japanese term for “actual place,” has been redefined by lean thinkers as the place where value-creating work actually occurs. In an IndustryWeek blog post, Bill Wilder, director of The Life Cycle Institute, calls gemba the “beating heart” of an organization, which for manufacturers, is rarely found in the marketing department or an executive desk. Instead, it is almost always found on the production floor.

To make any real change, managers need to literally take a walk—known as the “gemba walk”—to see their operation from the front lines. Getting out of the office and taking a gemba walk is the best way for leadership to see, firsthand, what works and doesn’t, and many experts believe it should be the first step in any lean transformation.

In a recent article in Quality Progress, lean expert Michael Bremer stresses the effectiveness of  gemba walks for leadership in  driving alignment within an operation. Bremer explains:

“Metrics are important, but they are limited to things that are measureable. Much of what is important is not measureable—at least in the immediate moment—and is actually hidden beneath the surface. When you walk the gemba, you have an opportunity to see below the surface with your own eyes and more deeply understand what is really happening inside your organization.”

What does this look like in practice? Based on our research, below are a few tips for taking a successful gemba walk in your machine shop: