Improving the Gemba Walk

You’ve just been hired or moved to a new manufacturing facility. It is important for you to understand how the plant flows and how the workforce feels about the plant and its people.  

What does the plant feel and how does it function? Not what you hear from the welcoming presentations or the leadership. Not what you overhear at the coffee station, water fountain or in the cafeteria.  Not what you can glean from memos or office meetings. Every plant has its own issues and personality. It’s up to you to understand the current circumstances in order to earn the confidence of the workforce and to improve the plant. 

 

Why is the support of your workforce important? 

Certainly, you, as a leader, have positional authority and respect. Your directions go, right? Sure, if you want to operate by edict and directive. Will you succeed? Eventually. Will you succeed quickly, with all the support of the workforce?. Eh…most likely not.   

So, what to do? According to many sources, one suggestion is to spend time on the floor – talking to the workforce, seeing how work is really done, observing the processes and problems. 

Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t what you’ve described just a “Gemba Walk”?  

Yep! But what if I told you there are ways to improve that walk?   

 

So, you’re ready to gemba. 

Maybe this is the specific time on your calendar that you’ve allotted to walk the floor; a time you’ve set up during your normal workday. You grab the required PPE, stand up, straighten your tie (or dress casual), and head out to spend your allotted time to talk to the workers.  

When you enter the factory, if you’re observant, you can see the workers check who is coming through the door. You might see them turn their heads and alert their fellow workers.   Workers may shift from one activity to another. As you mentally select “your target” to talk to, you might notice a slight demeanor change as “the boss” approaches them. Listen to their tone, is it guarded? Do you suspect you’re not getting all the information you’d like to be getting during this time? Do you go back to the office wondering if you accomplished or learned what you set out to? 

STOP!   

 

Let’s discuss a few course corrections.  

Having moved from plant to plant many times during my career, it was always important for me to learn the pulse and problems of the plant quickly. The best way to do that was to talk to those people who worked on the floor (gemba).  

The challenge: getting them to open up and talk to me…REALLY talk to me. That meant I needed to remove the barriers between us. In most facilities, it seems there is an inaudible signal that goes out on the floor once leadership steps through the door. The pulse changes.  Workers are often guarded about the information they “give” leadership, but generally they are the key to truly understanding the plant. Knowing this, I needed to remove as many barriers as possible to develop a free-flowing communication with the workers. 

Consider these course correction actions… 

  1. Scheduling. One of the first changes I made was to never schedule gemba walks. I did them, A LOT of them, but never on a schedule. Like having three children, no shift is the same. Even though the shifts have the same standardized work (just like children share the same parents!), each shift is unique with its own “take” on work and environment, and each shift struggles with different issues. So, I made sure I visited all three shifts, regularly.  It’s amazing what can be learned through observation and conversation on those “off-shifts.”   
  2. Entrance. Generally, I entered the plant via the employee entrance or the shipping dock. Why? So those “trained eyes” of the workers close to the door didn’t have time to start the signal “boss on deck.” (I did learn at one plant that security would alert the radios of the supervisors and team leaders whenever one of us entered the plant.)  
  3. Help out. Lending a hand proved to be one of the most effective means of building trust and opening up communication. See a worker struggling to make a box, give them a hand. Behind in packing a pallet, help them. Can’t find a hand tool…locate the tool or support person. Running short on parts…walk a few over from the stock room. Piece of cardboard or pallet banding on the floor…bend over, pick it up, and throw it in an approved container. Quality issue…help sort to keep the line running or the material flowing out the dock to the customer. 
  4. Demonstrate willingness. Very little breaks down barriers as well as demonstrating you’re willing to help them (and the plant) succeed. When you offer to assist and follow through with time and energy, you’d be amazed how quickly the whispers regarding your efforts spread throughout the plant and the workforce.
  5. Attire. Finally, think about the visual barrier between you and the worker as you talk.  Nothing speaks “boss” (and invokes the “watch your tongue” mentality) more than the way you’re dressed.  Suit and tie, business casual…leave it in the office. Gemba in the prescribed PPE for the facility and blue jeans. And oh, by the way, if your facility requires steel-toed shoes, then invest in a pair – not those noisy caps that slide over your nice dress shoes. NOTHING speaks “us” better than removing that visual “boss” barrier…now you’re not a visitor, you one of “us”. 

 

How I gemba. 

Think these “course corrections” only apply to the leadership that manages the plant? Think again. As a consultant, I still follow these guidelines on assignments. While I will probably meet the corporate executives at HQ dressed as one of them, when I spend my time in the plants, I “dress for success”:  successful communication with those who make the product.   

You’ll find me in blue jeans and appropriate PPE, lending a hand when I see an employee struggling.  And often, I’ll hear about the consultants who were there before, in their suits and ties, keeping to the main aisles, and talking to the supervisors and leadership. “You’re different,” I’ve heard.  Yes, I am. And I intend to keep it that way.  

Ready for a different kind of consulting team? One that knows how to communicate with your workers to grasp problems? One that delivers real solutions to support your workforce and boost production? Contact us at High Value Manufacturing Consulting.