Gemba Planning: 6 Questions for Planning an Effective Gemba Visit

This week I was reminded of how in our culture in America, while we like to solve problems at work, sometimes how we go about solving them lacks common sense. For example, where do we occupy most of our time when taking on a lean six sigma (LSS) project? Usually a conference room of some sort, but where is the problem actually taking place? Not in the conference room!

I’m currently teaching a class on lean tools and recently offered a lesson on going to “gemba” that was a reminder that this is perhaps one of the most crucial moments in a project where the goal is getting a “real world” perspective on the problem / opportunity we are trying to solve, yet we often try to paint that picture without going out and seeing for ourselves what it looks like!

I like to use the analogy that early in a project you are trying to paint a “picture” of what the current state looks like. If you are now standing in front of a canvas with a brush in your hand ready to paint would you prefer to ask questions and then paint based on verbal answers (aka sitting in a conference room), or would you rather look and see your subject matter in front of you and paint based on what your senses are providing?

Going to where?

I’m not a big fan of using the Japanese terms when it comes to teaching LSS because from my experience it doesn’t add much value to the process of teaching others how to improve. Often I find that it just confuses matters more, and adds more complexity to work life, and who’s looking for more complexity at work! I simply refer to gemba as “where the work is taking place”. With that in mind, I’ve developed some questions that I have found to be beneficial when putting together a strategy for a site visit.

A common mistake I encounter with my clients frequently is that they have the right intentions when going to visit a work site, but they often fail to plan what they want to do once they get there. This leads to the first question.

Question 1: What objectives do you have for the visit? Are you looking specifically for types of waste (i.e. DOWNTIME)? Safety concerns? Environmental issues?

If you aim at nothing you’re bound to hit it! This seems like a no brainer, but having a plan before you set out to visit the work site is critical to success. The phase you’re in can sometimes provide guidance as to what the focus should be.

For example, in the define phase you may be focusing on capturing voice of the customer; measure phase is typically current state process; analyze phase is often used to uncover and validate root causes; improve phase can be used to ask for ideas on solutions and collect improvement data; and the control phase can be used to audit results.

Question 2: How do you plan to setup your visit? Do you plan to talk with the manager of the area before the visit? Just show up and talk with the people at the work site?

I’m not one for surprise “inspections” because they generally put people on the defensive. I’ve found it much more beneficial to let people know you are going to be visiting their work area, and sharing with them your objectives. This not only sets everyone’s mind at ease, but it can also provide those you are visiting with a chance to prepare and provide more valuable information when you visit.

Question 3: What questions do you plan to ask?

This seems like it would go without saying, but far too often I find my clients just show up and don’t have a list of questions to ask to help achieve their objective. The questions will vary based on your objectives, but no matter what you will want to come prepared with a list of questions (I usually strive for no more than 5) to help accomplish your goal(s).

Question 4: What materials or tools will you be using to prepare (i.e. checklists, forms, etc.)?

Tools and templates are a great way to prepare and capture what you uncover during the site visit. This list of questions is one “tool” you can use to prepare, but others may include site visit checklists, an agenda, contact information, etc.

Question 5: How will you document what you see? Will you use pictures, video, sketches, etc.?

With all the technology available to us today there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to capture much of what you observe so that later you can “study” what you are most likely to forget. I view this part of the visit as a way to study the “game film” and really dig into understanding where to exploit potential opportunities.

This is especially beneficial when you are looking at a repetitive process that you can watch over and over again. Smartphone technology has come a long way in just the past few years so taking pictures, videos, and recording audio conversations are great places to start. Just make sure to ask permission from those you are recording before you get started.

Question 6: What validation techniques do you plan on using? How will you ensure your questions, process map, etc. truly reflects what you observed?

This final question can be overlooked because you are right there watching and recording what is actually happening, but quite frequently I see my clients observe, record, etc. and then go back to their desk and create a value stream map, process flow, etc. and never take it out to those they observed for final validation.

Quite often what we see, and then later document, may not be a true reflection of the process. A simple validation technique is to bring your process document back out to those you observed and share it with them to make sure what you’ve documented is true to the process.

Give respect to get respect.

These six questions can help you get started in putting together your plan to visit where the work is taking place. There are countless other questions that could be asked, but from my experience these six are a great starting point. One final point to remember is that you should always keep in mind that you are a visitor, and showing respect and appreciation to those that you are observing and visiting will go a long way in getting to the true focus of this exercise-helping others do what they do better.

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