Be mindful at the gemba

Be mindful at the gemba

Be mindful at the gemba

Over the past years we have been working on our organisational excellence framework. As a result, we have established a culture around our Vision & Mission (why), Strategy & Tactic (what) and Operations (how). One aspect, however, that has remained elusive is the gemba walk. ‘Gemba walk’ is a Japanese term used by Toyota to describe a walk through the workplace. The intent is to observe the processes and people while the actual work is being performed. This is opposed to sitting in a meeting room and discussing what everyone thinks might happen at the workplace.

One example of a gemba walk that always intrigued me was the ‘Ohno circle’. The ‘Ohno circle’, so the story goes, has a junior engineer standing in a chalk drawn circle and ‘simply’ observing the workplace for hours at the time. This mental picture of the Ohno circle struck me again during my meditation, observing my mind while sitting painfully cross-legged on a yoga mat… Observing one’s mind in meditation is not simply relaxing – quite the opposite – it is being focused with a purpose, non-judgementally, anchored in the present moment.

So how did we translate this to our gemba walk? I got a little help from my sensei with this one…


Walk the gemba

Purpose: to observe a process using its work schedule and the associated work instructions. Our schedules state capacity, duration, start and finish time for the process. Our work instructions describe the process in a Step-by-Step fashion, as well as, the required training levels.

Non-judgemental: to observe only. Our aim is not to interfere with either process or people. There is no teaching, criticising or interrupting during our gemba walk. While observing, we record and listen. ‘Listen’ means we are ‘silent’ – same letters, different order. Here are some of the things we look out for:

Does the process…

  • show variation of any kind?
  • flow as per the work instruction?
  • adhere to the cycle time?
  • start and finish on time?
  • make use of Poka Yoke?
  • use batching?
  • benefit from 5S?

Are the people…

  • adequately trained?
  • given sufficiently detailed work instruction for their training level?


Present moment: to be aware where we are on our Lean journey – not where we want to be or think we ought to be. Let’s not try to apply measures that took Toyota 100 years to achieve, given we started the Lean journey a few years ago.


Reflect on the gemba walk

The team comes together to reflect on the walk. We again apply the three aspects …

Purpose: to truly understand the current state of the process by reviewing the data from the gemba walk.

Non-judgemental: to listen to each other. We do not give advice or criticise.

Present moment: to digest everyone’s observations – what did we sense, feel, see, hear, smell, taste? How did the gemba walker(s) and the team member(s) experience the gemba walk? What was recorded?


Analyse gemba data & plan future state

Purpose: to analyse the observations from the gemba walk based on the above reflection.

Non-judgemental: to build a consensus for a new future state.

Present moment: to investigate the gap between the current state and the future state, and to design a plan to eliminate or reduce that gap.

The present moment is followed by the implementation of the plan as a team. Based on the extent of the gap this may require a relatively simple improvement at the workplace, an update of the work instructions, a Kaizen event, or a week long Jishuken. Once executed we undertake yet another gemba walk with the team.

If this sounds like PDCA, scientific method, A3 thinking or IDEA then that’s because gemba walking in our mind is just that… Want to have a chat? Find me at the Shingo Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, 24-28 April.

Happy mindful gemba walking!

– Frank, CEO –