June 20, 2015 / best practices, lean manufacturing, maintaining talent, productivity, quality
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:
- Keep It Structured. According to the SlideShare presentation “Gemba 101,” there are four steps to gemba success: know your purpose, know your gemba, observe your framework, and validate. You can read the slides for more information, but the key takeaway here is that a gemba walk should be structured. It is not the same as Management By Wandering Around (MBWA), which is often casual and unstructured. In contrast, a gemba walk has a specific purpose.
- Ask the Right Questions. According to Bremer, the point of a gemba walk is to find out what really happens on the floor, not what one assumes is happening. The key, he says, is to ask probing questions that reveal the full scope of the work being done. Bremer suggests managers start with “what” and “how” questions (i.e., “What is the primary purpose of this work activity?” or “How do you measure a successful work day?”). Once those questions are answered, managers can follow-up with “why” questions (i.e., “Why is this the right way to do your job?”).
- Respectfully Engage. It is important to note that a gemba walk is not an opportunity to find fault or enforce policy, nor is it a time to solve problems or make changes on the spot. Instead, experts say it should be a time of respectful observation, input, and reflection. Leadership should go on the walk with an open mind and welcome suggestions from operators and other shop floor employees. As described in the white paper, The Top 5 Operating Challenges Facing Today’s Machine Shops Metal Cutting Operations, shop managers who constantly solicit input from their workers can create an atmosphere in which employees begin to “buy in” and truly care about the success of the operation. This, the white paper explains, makes operators more open to making changes and taking new approaches.