From the Japanese term gemba, referring to “the real place,” the Gemba (or Genba) Walk is a concept applied in several improvement and efficiency models to understand through observation what is really taking place in the place where the work is actually being done, and to collaborate with the people actually doing the work in order to help improve processes and results. Jim Womack describes the Gemba Walk as:

 

A horizontal journey along a value stream (a value creating process) across departments, functions, and organizations to facilitate: A transformational leap in performance…Sustainable improvement…Coaching the next generation…”[1]

 

Developed under the leadership of Talichi Ohno of Toyota, the Gemba Walk is a fundamental component in Lean manufacturing, serving as a catalyst for improving processes and minimizing inefficiency. Gemba involves physically walking the space where the work is done and where the value is created, rather than simply analyzing data from a centralized location (conference room or the like).

The value of the Gemba Walk is evident in several ways. Firsthand knowledge is the best kind of knowledge – while Ohno valued data, he also recognized that data did not always tell the story. (1) Firsthand knowledge fills in important blanks. (2) People are more important than processes. Each person involved offers unique perspective on the processes, and it is important to remember that the processes are in place to help people fulfill their roles and not the other way around. (3) Perspective matters. Just as one cannot understand what a house is by simply looking at a materials list, it is difficult to really understand how the value is created simply from the data.

“Go see, ask why, show respect” – these famous words of Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho sum up the Gemba Walk process. “Go see” involves (1) viewing the Gemba in order to assess the alignment of the Gemba’s purpose with that of the organization, (2) observing processes to understand whether or not they are designed to support the purpose, and (3) to engage the people to gain their perspectives on whether or not the processes are designed to help them fulfill their roles in achieving the purpose.

“Ask why” can be done from four perspectives, the solution view (which looks for opportunities to employ solutions), the waste view (which tries to identify areas of waste or inefficiency), the problem view (which starts with objectives, confirms design, and asks why the objectives can’t be met), and the Kaizen view (which seeks to examine for improvement at a system level).[2] Each are valid and important in context (though this writer prefers the Kaizen perspective for its broad and systemic impact).

“Show respect” is perhaps the most valuable piece, as people are the goal, not simply the means to an end. Womack suggests that the Gemba Walk is “to grasp the situation by involving everyone touching the process to understand purpose, process, and people.”[3] Objectives are accomplished by people, not processes. Processes ought to be designed to support people in their accomplishment of objectives. Ultimately this means developing people to be who they can be. One tremendous side effect of that development is greatly increased capability in fulfilling their roles, which leads to greater efficiency in accomplishing objectives. The Gemba Walk is a visible way for leadership to invest in people as people and not merely as resources to be harnessed for organizational gain.

The Gemba Walk is intended to provide accurate self-assessment and organizational assessment through the lens of peers and organizational members; it relies on foundational truths and objectives to provide the basis for objective assessment; and it expects to facilitate transformational growth. In these three areas, the Gemba Walk bears remarkable similarity to the Biblical process of personal and organizational growth.

The Bible describes the importance of accurate self-assessment, both for the individual and for the group. The Apostle Paul recognizes that self-examination is limited in its effectiveness, and that accountability is needed in order to arrive at an accurate self-assessment:

But to me it is a very small thing that I might be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact I do not examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:3-4).

 

Paul understands that there is benefit in the perspectives of others, but ultimately he relies on the one perspective he knows to be fully trustworthy – the Lord’s. Even though Paul may not find deficiency in himself, he recognizes that God’s perspective is more accurate. The lesson here is the same that is put into practice in the Gemba Walk – accurate self-assessment requires objective accountability and candor from observers. Incidentally, this principle has great value in our personal lives. If Paul is correct, and God is the accurate Observer, then what God has to say about us should carry the greatest weight, and we should look to Him for our definitions.

When He describes the foundational truths that we are lost and lifeless without Him (Romans 3:23, 6:23), that He has provided for us to be remade with new life and purpose (1 Corinthians 15:2-3, Ephesians 2:8-10), and that He has provided the empowerment and objectives for our transformational growth (Romans 12:1-2, John 17:3), we ought to recognize that in the Gemba Walk of life, we cannot ignore the truth that is right in front of us.

With respect to the organizational aspects of accurate self-assessment, foundational truths and objectives, and transformational growth described in the Bible we need look no further than God’s plan and purpose for the collective group of believers in Christ, often referred to as the church. In God’s loving leadership of this group we see the time-tested and divinely derived principles which the Gemba Walk more recently illustrates. First, all members of the group are placed in the group deliberately for an ultimate purpose and design (Ephesians 2:8-10, 4:11-12). They are given foundational truths and principles to guide them as they grow and function together (2 Timothy 3:16-17). They are empowered to achieve a grand purpose and to serve one another in the utilization of those empowerments (1 Corinthians 12:7, 1 Peter 4:10-11). Each member of the group is promised transformational growth if they engage faithfully in the process (Romans 8:28-30, 1 Corinthians 3:7-9, Ephesians 4:15), and are cautioned that if they ignore the process, that growth can be hindered (1 Corinthians 3:1-3, Galatians 5:16-25), even if their position as part of the group is secure (John 6:47, Romans 8:1, 38-39, 1 Peter 1:3-5). In this journey, each member of the group is to “Show respect” for one another (Philippians 2: 1-11, Ephesians 5:21). Each member is to “Ask why,” holding each other accountable (Colossians, 3:12-17, 1 Corinthians 5:12-6:7). Each member is to “Go see,” engaging each other for accurate assessment and for seeking one another’s highest good (Hebrews 10:24-25, Philippians 2:3-5).

The Gemba Walk is an enlightening tool for organizational leadership, and because it was crafted from timeless and divinely derived principles it provides more than an organizational tool. Develop a Gemba Walk habit in your own personal life, and discover what God thinks about you, about your objectives, about your processes, and about how you are interacting with Him and others. I think you will want to be part of His organization – the collective group of those who have believed in Jesus Christ. And if you already are part of that group, then allow that group to do the Gemba Walks with you, and be willing to do it with them. God provides the objectives, the processes, and the people. “Go see. Ask why. Show respect.”

[1] Jim Womack, “Gemba Walks” at Industry Week Best Plants Conference, Atlanta, Georgia, April 5, 2011.

[2] John Shook, “How to Go to the Gemba” Go See, Ask Why, Show Respect” at https://www.lean.org/shook/displayobject.cfm?o=1843, 6/21/2011.

[3] Womack, “Gemba Walks.”

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