How to Master the Gemba Walk [+ Checklist Template]

Published on:
March 27, 2024
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Maintaining consistency, quality, and continuous improvement in any industry can be a challenge—especially when you’re managing large or dispersed teams, multiple departments, complex projects, or segmented workflows.

It can be hard to know where to start when it comes to keeping track of tasks and ensuring adequate visibility into processes and progress. But that’s where exercises like gemba walks can make such a huge impact. 

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In this article we’ll discuss how Gemba Walks can benefit your business by improving visibility, consistency, and quality. We’ll touch on: 

  • What is a Gemba Walk?
  • What industries use Gemba Walks?
  • 5 Benefits of Gemba Walk
  • How to conduct a Gemba Walk
  • How to incorporate Gemba Walks into your business

We’ll also provide you with a free, downloadable Gemba Walk checklist template to help you start implementing Gemba Walks at your workplace. Plus we’ll discuss ways to use digital work management solutions like Xenia to conduct, organize, and track Gemba Walks on the go. 

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What Is a Gemba Walk? 

A Gemba Walk is a lean work practice derived from the Japanese word “Gemba,” alternatively known as “Gembutsu.” It means “the real place,” and in the business or work world it refers to the place where the location where value is ultimately created, such as the factory floor. While work happens across an organization at a variety of levels, a Gemba Walk often helps surface the tasks happening at production level. Many times this act is literally described as the process of seeing where the actual work happens

Which Industries Use Gemba Walks? 

Gemba Walks started in the manufacturing industry when supervisors would visit factory floors to observe processes and talk with floor workers about their experiences and how work could be improved upon. It was pioneered by Toyota, as many Lean business practices were, in their pursuit to eliminate waste in workflow. But now, Gemba Walks take place in almost every industry, from software engineering and marketing operations to customer service centers

Gemba Walks can be adapted to any workflow, since the main purpose is for organization leaders to connect with those directly contributing to whatever work drives the business. While most organizational structures prioritize a vertical hierarchy where managers, leaders, supervisors, or directors are at the “top” and floor workers, frontline employees, or office staff are at the “bottom,” Gemba Walks ask companies to look at the work horizontally as a line of delivery straight to the customer, where the customer or deliverable is what’s most important. 

The truth is that, since Gemba Walks can be tailored to suit individual organization or company needs, this process can ultimately be utilized in any industry. Gemba Walks no longer necessarily have to be physical walks—a Gemba Walk can be conducted digitally using various methods, and teams can structure these exercises on a cadence that best suits their workflow.

There isn’t necessarily one industry that benefits from a Gemba Walk more than others. Every business can benefit from better visibility, higher employee engagement, deeper insights, and the prioritization of continuous improvement. 

5 Benefits of Gemba Walk

We’ve discussed a little bit about the general idea of Gemba Walks and the value they provide by taking leadership deeper into the heart of an organization’s work practices—but what does that really mean? Next, we’ll take a look at some of the other major benefits of Gemba Walks.

1. Provide Increased Visibility

By prioritizing visibility into the work that creates the most value for an organization, teams are better able to improve process times, identify areas for improvement, increase quality and consistency, and brainstorm new ideas. Talking directly to the individuals responsible for project deliverables provides real-world, real-time insights into their day-to-day responsibilities. 

Gemba Walks allow leaders to directly see: what’s going right, where things could go better, and what could be prioritized to achieve desired outcomes. This level of visibility also allows leadership to better understand how adherence to company-wide SOPs (standard operating procedures) is going, and aids in maintaining necessary brand standards. Incorporating EHS inspection software can further support your efforts in maintaining safety and environmental standards across the board

2. Improve Employee Engagement 

Beyond added visibility, Gemba Walks provide a time for leadership to directly engage with staff. It gives team members an opportunity to bring up process pain points, new ideas for improvement, workflow suggestions, and more. This goes a long way toward increasing general employee engagement and improving staff turnover over time. 

Because Gemba Walks lend to employee engagement, this process can often result in a boost across staff morale as well. Adopting worker safety software is another effective way to safeguard frontline workers' wellbeing, reinforcing your commitment to their safety and job satisfaction. The exercise demonstrates that the organization understands the value of frontline work and cares about continuous professional development. 

3. Increased Acceptance of Workflow Changes

Gemba Walks not only provide a platform for leadership to address process pain points and areas for improvement, they also allow for leaders to gradually introduce and implement major change so it’s more readily accepted by employees. During Gemba Walks, managers, directors, and supervisors alike can check in on new processes, answer staff questions to improve understanding, and gradually roll out new procedures. 

Creating an open environment for discussion, observation, and continuous improvement encourages employees to embrace change more readily. Your team is made part of the process of creating and implementing changes rather than having changes forced upon them. This can be incredibly beneficial in fostering a culture of collaboration and active teamwork, too. 

4. Encourage Open & Collaborative Culture

Since Gemba Walks regularly connect floor workers, frontline teams, and office staff with directors, managers, and other members of leadership that often seem out of reach, it helps to foster an open culture of teamwork and collaboration. When your business creates this kind of collaborative culture, it allows for more brainstorming, more ideas, and, by proxy, more room for improvement! It empowers team members to feel comfortable enough to share their thoughts. 

Curating this kind of culture across your organization also goes a long way toward employee happiness, engagement, and retention. It keeps everyone on the same page and helps surface issues quickly when they pop up, so they can be resolved just as swiftly. 

5. Streamline Operations, Save Time And Money

All of the best benefits of Gemba Walks ultimately combine to help streamline operations, which ultimately saves your organization time and money. Since the primary goal of Gemba Walks has always been to aid in the elimination of workplace waste—meaning wasted time, resources, money, etc—the exercise is designed to identify problem areas and find ways to eliminate workflow or process issues altogether. 

By regularly visiting where the most important work takes place, leadership is able to quickly pivot processes when necessary to find the most efficient workflows. It can initially feel like an additional task for managers or leaders to complete, but ultimately getting into a regular cadence of Gemba Walks will save you time in the long run and help to sidestep waste and improve your bottom line. 

How To Do a Gemba Walk?

Gemba Walks can be tailored to individual team or department workflows, organization needs, and industry standards, but a basic Gemba Walk generally involves 4 main elements: 

  1. Scheduling the Gemba Walk and letting teams know 
  2. Preparing questions to ask employees 
  3. Observing teams and processes without interfering
  4. Recording observations and reflecting 

These elements of a Gemba Walk will look different from industry to industry and company to company, but ultimately it all comes down to these 4 steps. 

1. Scheduling Your Gemba Walk

When you’re preparing for a Gemba Walk, pick a time when you can easily observe your team's workflow in the way you need to. So if there’s a particular part of your organization's process that you’re looking to understand, check in with teams to see when the best time or day to observe these things might be. Even if you don’t collaborate with teams to determine a time, it’s important to give your employees a heads up on what’s going to take place so that they will understand what’s going on and be able to work naturally. 

A Gemba Walk can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour or more, depending on needs, department, and observational goals. But most of the time around 30 minutes or so is enough to visualize a department or team's general workflow and get an idea of pain points, improvement needs, and first steps to move toward goals. 

If it’s your first time conducting one of these walks, it can be worth educating the broader team on what a Gemba Walk is and what you’re looking to accomplish with it. It’s important for team members to understand that a Gemba Walk is not a test or an opportunity for criticism, it’s simply a time that enables leadership to better understand daily processes and make specific or general improvements. 

2. Preparing Questions to Ask Employees

As you continue preparing for your Gemba Walk, start thinking through the questions you need to ask to gather any information you might need. If you’re not going in with any particular informational needs, and you’re just conducting a walk to get the process of observing workflow started, you may be able to get away with some general, on-the-fly questions. But in most cases it’s recommended to have prepared questions on hand to gather details and track eventual progress toward desired improvements or broader organization-wide goals.

If you’re not sure where to start with your questions but want to pose questions that will help to direct your team toward general waste elimination and overall workflow improvement you can consider utilizing the 5 Whys technique. The 5 Whys is another concept Toyota brought to the table. Essentially it suggests asking “Why” 5 times until you get to the root of an issue. 

3. Observing Teams And Processes Without Interfering

Once you’ve scheduled your Gemba Walk and prepared any questions you’d like to ask, it’s time to head out for the walk itself. A traditional Gemba Walk will be conducted in person, but depending on how dispersed your team is, you may decide to conduct your walk via a coordinated video or conference call. During your Gemba Walk be sure to observe processes without interfering. 

You can stop to ask questions or inquire into deeper processes, but don’t use this time to criticize, call out individual team members, or make any process changes on the spot. This is the time to watch and collect data to develop better understanding. 

4. Recording Observations And Reflecting 

Finally, as you're conducting your walk, take down notes and record answers to any questions you might have for later reflection. As previously mentioned, the priority of a Gemba Walk is to observe processes, connect with the heart of work at your organization, and utilize findings to make improvements over time. To enhance these efforts, implementing safety audit software can streamline the auditing process, ensuring thoroughness and compliance. As you observe, take down as much information as you need to help with your reflections, planning, and prioritization of future improvements. 

You can create a template or checklist for your questions and notes to help guide your Gemba Walk and aid in creating a database for later reflection and historical record. Utilizing a digital tool or app can help to streamline this process and create an automatic log of this information that can be accessed by any authorized user within your organization. Additionally, for organizations aiming to align with global safety standards, exploring ISO 45001 software can provide essential tools and insights.

From there, as you reflect on your findings, you can start to collaborate with teams to find solutions, set goals, and make more lasting improvements. Gather teams together to discuss findings and brainstorm. This provides a space for discussion as well as a moment to address any immediate action that should be taken, if necessary, while also giving your team a platform to share their own insights and make suggestions for the future. 

How To Incorporate Gemba Walks Into Your Business?

You can incorporate Gemba Walks into your business in a variety of ways, everything starts with the introduction of the concept itself across your organization or team. From there, look at what you want to accomplish with these walks and how often you’ll need to conduct your Gemba Walks in order to have the best impact across your operations. 

Some teams find that an annual Gemba Walk is enough to keep everyone on track, but some teams conduct them more frequently on a quarterly, monthly, or even weekly basis. The cadence ultimately depends on the level of insight and clarity leadership needs into deliverables and operating procedures and the goals your organization has. Starting with a 15-minute introductory Gemba Walk can be a great way to start connecting teams and identifying further need and cadence. 

We’ve included a free Gemba Walk Checklist Template to help you start organizing your Gemba Walks and asking the right questions. Just download the template to get started, and feel free to edit the checklist to suit your individual team needs. 

Use Xenia for Gemba Walks and Beyond! 

Make Gemba Walks even simpler by utilizing Xenia as your primary, digital Gemba Walk application. Xenia is a frontline-friendly workflow management and operations that works for every use case in every industry—and Gemba Walks are no exception to this! Our solution allows you to create, complete, manage, and disperse Gemba Walk checklists across your organization for increased visibility, automatic historical logs, and easy, on the go tracking. 

You can even attach images and attachments to individual checklist items using Xenia’s user-friendly mobile app, so you can track every observation and answer you need to in complete detail. Plus our custom reports allow you to analyze Gemba Walks over time and visualize changes across answers and observations for deeper insights. 

Xenia’s completely flexible and customizable features make it perfect for out-of-the-box Gemba Walk processes. It’s easy to tailor your checklists to your organization's preferences and individual needs. And with in-app messaging you’ll be able to stay in touch with your team no matter how dispersed or close-knit your organization is. 

Visit our website to see how Xenia can help you streamline your Gemba Walks and your operations or schedule a free product demo any time! 

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