Three Things to Check During a Gemba Walk

As the teaching and implementation lean becomes more of a business there are an increasing number of 72-point surveys and 40-criteria lean maturity assessments.

These certainly have value since an end-to-end customer-focused business lean enterprise strategy requires careful evaluation from the perspectives of many disciplines. However sometimes when visiting a customer, supplier or potential acquisition there is only time for a brief gemba walk. In cases like these we must rely on what we can see for ourselves and summarize on a single A4 page in order to gauge the level of lean management. In order to do so without being misled by superficial signs of lean implementation or explanations of why things are they way they are, there are three things to check during a gemba walk: standardized work, kanban and hour by hour boards.

Standardized work
Being by checking standardized work. The reason is that poor or lacking standardized work may foil any attempt at a quick but meaningful assessment. When standardized work is poor the method may not be agreed, followed or repeatable, the inputs may not be correct, the sequence or combination of activities may vary, as will any the quality of one’s assessment.

Things to check:

  • Is it properly documented, based on type of standardized work (1, 2 and 3)?
  • Have these been revised within the past month?
  • Is it being followed?
  • Is there a way to immediately call attention (e.g. andon) when standardized work cannot be followed?
  • Is the standard work in process inventory clearly and correctly identified?
  • Does standardized work exist for the off-line, non-routine or occasional work?

A strong showing in the standardized work area is evidence of underlying stability, an understanding of takt – flow – line balancing, the limitation of motion and waiting wastes, the value of standardization as a prerequisite to a continuous improvement culture.

If standardized work appears to exist in a passable condition then next to check is kanban. We need to verify that the amount of work that is in the system is controlled, at an appropriate level and properly linked with information flow. If this is out of whack, being on-time 100% to a false demand based on overproduction will not mean much when it comes to the hour by hour performance.

Things to check:

  • Is WIP limited rationally based on factors of demand, supply and variation?
  • Is there a clear separation between regular and safety stock quantity?
  • Is information visibly linked to the material (or in transactional terms does the “request” match the “work”)?
  • Does every work piece or container have a kanban attached?
  • Is there a regular and frequent collection and distribution cycle for kanban?
  • Is the kanban quantity being reduced continuously?

A strong showing in the kanban category is evidence of the limitation of overproduction and inventory wastes, value stream thinking via linking of material an information flow, and the prerequisite leveling or reduction of lot sizes to the necessary level of flexibility to support a pull system.

Hour by hour boards
Once we are confident that the right work is being done in a standardized way we can check into how smoothly this system runs within a shift and within the hour. In addition, even a passing glance at a few hour by hour boards and their “Remarks” or “Reason” column will reveal the level of problem awareness and cadence of continuous improvement within on organization.

Things to check:

  • Is there a plan for the day, shift, or hour?
  • Is the lot size or batch size based on firm order quantity?
  • Is the actual performance for each hour posted?
  • Are reasons for deviation from the plan clearly specified each hour?
  • Is there documented evidence of problem response within the hour?
  • Is there an improvement target?

The vigorous use of hour by hour boards is evidence of strong shop floor management, early detection of problems, the control of quality and reduction of defects, short cycles of response to abnormalities and evidence teamwork across the organization.

The examples shown are from manufacturing and supply chain but the analogous tools should be visible in a lean service organization. All three of these lean systems are examples of visual management, setting standards and built-in action towards continuous improvement of safety, quality, on-time delivery and cost. When time allows, using open-ended questions (5W1H) rather than closed (yes / no) questions are preferable for deeper learning whenever the answer is “no”. Given an hour or two for a more thorough assessment, there are another 20-25 targeted questions to ask on each of these topics, with “Why not?” being one of the most important.


  1. Ericmo

    November 6, 2010 - 12:58 am

    another factor for excellence to check in the gemba walk is “real time” line synchronization to the final assembly/process line – the last station in the whole production process. After checking a particular line’s conformance to standardized work, the flow/stagnation of kanban, and its hour-by-hour production progress it is also valuable to check if the local line is synchronized with the main line’s final process (line-off) regardless if its the immediate downstream process or not. Unsynchronized to the line-off output by a single tact time pitch is still Muda and would create a chain overproduction effect. This can be resolved if all the sublines know whats happening on the last production station and not the immediate or next process alone. By installing manual or electronic pacemaker andon to all the sublines the whole production process can be synchronized.

  2. Bob Emiliani

    November 6, 2010 - 4:37 am

    For decades the focus of gemba walks has been on operations and evaluating continuous improvement activities – e.g. whether or not Lean tools are in use. That has never been sufficient. Gemba walks must include a strong focus on the “Respect for People” principle. This is long overdue.
    If there is no evidence of the “Respect for People” principle, then the company is doing what almost every other company has done for ten decades before them: mindlessly copying productivity improvement tools to achieve short-term gains to the bottom-line. They will simply be improving at someone else’s expense (i.e. win-lose). There is no challenge in that.
    A gemba walk whose focus is better balanced will help visitors learn if the company’s Lean efforts are REAL or Fake. In addition, this will put needed pressure on senior managers to understand and practice the “Respect for People” principle, and to set an example for others to follow.

  3. Matt Wrye

    November 6, 2010 - 8:03 am

    Jon –
    That is a great checklist for a quick view of a place. One other thing I look for is the system for continuous improvement. I ask operators if they have their ideas heard and if so, how? Is it only during kaizens events or do they have a process to get their ideas implemented on a daily basis? Also, to they get to help in implementing their ideas?
    Great post.

  4. Jon Miller

    November 7, 2010 - 5:28 am

    Thanks for the comments, these are excellent additions.
    In terms of gauging respect for people during a gemba walk… it’s very easy to find evidence of absence, fairly easy to find false positives, and very difficult to find unquestionable evidence of this in practice. I need to mull it over.

  5. Thierry EHRHARDT

    November 9, 2010 - 8:15 am

    I find this Checklist interesting.
    I would like suggest to see the improvement that have been made; thrue visual Management for example.
    Good post.

  6. daniel

    November 10, 2010 - 9:36 am

    Ritual, Ease, Visibility

  7. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    November 24, 2010 - 3:18 pm

    I notice more and more that many leaders get confused on their “gemba walks” about whether to be observing the process or the content. I believe the answer is “it depends.” For example, using your examples, for standard work, I believe the goal is to observe the process. How are people using the standard work? Is it helping them? How are supervisors engaging in that process?
    However, the hourly boards, while the process is important, it’s the content that a leader can really use. What’s disrupting flow? What are the patterns? Does the organization have what it needs?
    More and more leaders are learning the difference between observing the process and observing the content, or results. That’s a great thing. But it’s not that one is good and one is bad. Both have their place, and its important to know what we are trying to accomplish in our observations.
    Jamie Flinchbaugh

  8. Ronak

    April 26, 2012 - 5:18 am

    Jerry,How right you are. In fact, I think the Lean principle of hiitlumy is so very important. Humble people will allow the data to lead them and are ready to apply that overused, but telling phrase, It is what it is. Once one knows what it is, they can then effectively work on the to be. Another important thing to remember is that, especially during the initial part of Lean transformation, employees are watching to see if their leaders are credible. If the leaders can’t abide by the truth, then how can the workers trust and ultimately take the risks so necessary for transformation?Best regards,Mark

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