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Mike Micklewright


Gemba Walking Dead

Get the zombie off your shop floor

Published: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - 08:06

Recently, while providing training for new clients, I heard a comment from two different people that went something like this: “That gemba walking stuff is really nothing new; it used to be called ‘management by walking around.’” Admittedly I was caught off guard, especially the first time I was told this, since I’d never heard someone say or even think of such an absurdity.

But later, after thinking some more about the comments, I remembered other companies that had claimed they were performing gemba walks, when in fact they weren’t even coming close to it. Their gemba walks were more like “gemba walking dead.”

Let’s understand first what “management by walking around” (MBWA) really was. Made popular by Hewlett-Packard during the 1970s, MBWA, as Wikipedia explains, “refers to a style of business which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, preapproved, or scheduled times.

“The expected benefit is that a manager, by walking around to observe events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate improvements to the morale, sense of organizational purpose, productivity, and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.”

Keywords in this MBWA definition include “unstructured manner,” “at random,” and “rather than a plan.” This wasn’t interacting with the most important people. This was determining what was wrong in the eyes of the manager. This wasn’t challenging employees about the waste observed in the process. This was telling people what they were doing wrong. This wasn’t done on a schedule determined by leader standard work. This was random, done as a means to catch people out.

This wasn’t gemba walking. This was policing. MBWA was gemba walking dead.

Gemba walking live is an active function. It’s a lively process that involves the most important people—the experts working the job and the supervisors managing the process.

Managers at a well-respected company I visited several years ago insisted that they were doing gemba walks. I asked them if I could observe and offer feedback. Their version of a gemba walk was conducting huddle meetings around a visual management board on the production floor and then walking to the next huddle meeting, and so on. What they called a gemba walk was the commute between huddle meetings at the gemba—ergo, gemba walks. There was no watching the process at the gemba, no interaction with employees working in production or with the team leaders, no challenging the process, and no chance to see the waste. It was gemba walking dead! It was like a bunch of zombies aimlessly walking around and bumping into each other without pursuing the blood of the living.

Gemba walking live means challenging the ideas and perceptions of those who manage the process to help them consider far greater possibilities. It’s seeing the situation for what it is and asking why it can’t be better. It’s watching a process that’s done by six people, seeing the excessive transportation, the idle time waiting for people or machines to complete tasks, the excessive work in process and rework, then empathizing with the wasteful situation and then asking why that same process can’t be completed by two people.

Gemba walking dead involves going to the process to the see the waste and telling people that their process is wasteful. It’s telling people what they need to do to change and what specific actions they must take because the dead gemba walker is the sensei and knows all, and therefore is truly dead in terms of the spirit of gemba walking. Gemba walking dead is a dictatorship. It is demanding based on command and control.

Gemba walking live is about asking, not telling, in the pursuit of the truth of what is really possible. It means asking challenging, open-ended questions. Its purpose is to understand the truth about what has to be done, what doesn’t have to be done, what is value-adding, and what isn’t. To do this effectively, deep, hard, and challenging questions must be asked, especially to those responsible for the overall effectiveness of the process. Good answers are expected, especially with regard to why actual results don’t meet expected results. Mistakes, errors, and problems must be transparent and visible for all to see, and a live gemba walker will make them clear. The live gemba walker’s goal is to get people to think and provide answers and alternatives, out of respect for the individual:

Dead gemba walkers watch the process from a distance. They are like zombies who, while pursuing a running human, never get too close.

Live gemba walkers get right in where the action is. They’re not afraid to get their hands dirty, to get down on their hands and knees and look beneath equipment, search behind warehouse storage areas, and talk to people directly. In an office setting, the live gemba walker ensures that the process owner shares his computer screen and shows each step of the transactional process. The live gemba walker will even get into emails regarding the process, ask challenging questions, and get the process owner to think.

Dead gemba walkers don’t practice what they preach or truly walk in the gemba. They think they’re doing it right because they read about gemba walking in a book, or they had an hour of training. They don’t watch live gemba walkers or try to learn from them.

Live gemba walkers realize that gemba walking is a skill that must be honed, and that one of the best ways to do this is to find live gemba walkers and have them watch their gemba walks or perform one with them, and then be open to feedback. Live gemba walkers will ensure that systems are built into the organization (e.g., leader standard work) so that this improvement process happens continually.

Does your company practice gemba walking with the living or with the dead?


About The Author

Mike Micklewright’s picture

Mike Micklewright

Mike Micklewright has been teaching and facilitating quality and lean principles worldwide for more than 25 years. He specializes in creating lean and continuous improvement cultures, and has implemented continuous improvement systems and facilitated kaizen/Six Sigma events in hundreds of organizations in the aerospace, automotive, entertainment, manufacturing, food, healthcare, and warehousing industries. Micklewright is the U.S. director and senior consultant for Kaizen Institute. He has an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, and he is ASQ-certified as a Six Sigma Black Belt, quality auditor, quality engineer, manager of quality/operational excellence, and supply chain analyst.

Micklewright hosts a video training series by Kaizen Institute on integrating lean and quality management systems in order to reduce waste.