Gemba walks versus Waste walks

After visiting several plants in Asia, not long ago, I found a lot of confusion among practitioners about why we do gemba walks, what really is, and how we should do it. Below is a summary of key points from practicing gemba walks for many years and from great lean practitioners such as Masaaki Imai, Jon Miller and others.

What is Gemba Walk?
Gemba walk is a "go and see" practice with aim to understand the current condition of your value creation process (value stream) with the purpose to develop the problem solving capabilities of your people.

Gemba walks shape behaviors based on at least four lean values or principles:
  1. Observe problems first hand (go and see)  
  2. Embrace scientific problem solving (PDCA)
  3. Focus on value streams
  4. Lead with humility (respect people intelligence)  
Gemba walks versus waste walks
It worries me that some lean practitioners are confusing gemba walks with waste walks. They are quite different. Waste walks purpose is to develop "eyes for waste". As Shigeo Shingo rightly stated “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize”, a waste walk aims to recognize the waste by actually going to see the gemba with the help of a seasoned lean practitioner.
A great reference to learn more about waste walk and even to download a template is provided by LEI in the book "Perfecting patient Journeys"      
"The Seven deadly wastes" were created by Taiichi Ohno as he also recognized the challenges to help people see the waste within their own processes. However, Ohno's approach to develop "eyes for waste" was less walking and much more standing and observing.

Ohno's approach to Waste walks: Stand in the Circle
Ohno's approach makes managers to draw a chalk circle around and stand in to observe a process for hours without leaving the circle. Jeffry Liker in his book "The Toyota Way Field" describes this approach with a little more color: "members are left standing for eight hours or more before the sensei is satisfied that they have seriously seen the waste."  While it may appear a harsh approach, this exercise makes evident how difficult is to identify waste particularly in processes we are familiar with.
Jon Miller provides a little less harsh approach to Ohno's one in these two posts:  Give me 60 minutes and I'll give you a lean transformation and 101 Kaizen Templates: Stand in the Circle.  

Similarly, I use waste walks to teach managers how to identify waste in their processes and less about walking. In fact, I asked them to stand and don't walk at all.  

The purpose of gemba walk: Beyond waste hunting
The purpose of gemba walk is to understand the current condition of your value creation process (value stream) at four levels: purpose, process, people and problem solving.
  • Purpose: What customer's problem are we solving (value creation)? 
  • Process: How do our processes work?
  • People: How do our people work? 
  • Problem solving: How are problems identified and solved? 
Gemba walks are about continuous improvement which drives waste out of processes. However, it should not be about waste hunting at all. Gemba walks that focus on generating to-do improvement lists without developing the level of the problem solving, process and people do little to sustain or create continuous improvement. The wrong mindset will drive the wrong behaviors.
Jim Womack explains the purpose of the gemba walk: "...truly understand the value stream and its problems rather than review results or make superficial comments":
Gemba walks must be done where the value is created: at the gemba.

1. Select a particular value stream: start at the closest process step to your customer and follow the value flow backwards through different departments, functions and areas. Keep in mind that value creation process is a horizontal flow while most organizations are vertically structured
2. Invite every value-stream owner: employees, middle managers and leaders who are part of the value stream
3. Ask about: purpose, process, people and level of problem solving

A gemba walk is not the place or the time to fix problems, but to understand the level of problem solving. For instance, when walking throughout a value stream start by asking the following questions:
  • Is the TARGET condition at each process step understood?
  • Is the ACTUAL condition at each process step known? 
  • Do the obstacles/problems that prevent to reach the target condition identified?
  • Which obstacles are being addressed right now?
  • What are the next obstacles to be addressed later? 
  • Do learning and sharing is occurring?
Notice that above questions are not aimed to fix problems or suggest solutions.
Jon Miller proposes 10 practical rules to follow when leading a gemba walk:
Every value-stream owner including leaders, functional managers, supervisors and all employees who are involved in the value stream.

Frequency of gemba walks should increase for people closer to the value creation. Daily gemba walks must be part of daily management systems in order to understand the current condition. Middle and senior management should do it several times a year as a way to break silos and functional barriers and grasp the value creation process.