Tips for Lean Managers

10 Rules for Good Gemba Walks

By Jon Miller Updated on December 31st, 2018

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Elmore Leonard is an American novelist who has been writing lean and taut crime novels for a half century. He is the Toyota of crime novels, if that’s a compliment. Reliable, not flashy, always delivering on the promise of a hard-boiled reading experience. He does this by sticking to a process called Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Good Writing. They are:

1. Never open a book with weather
2. Avoid prologues
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely
5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip

Skip it. Avoid it. Leave it out. Never touch the stuff. Don’t be tempted. Stick to the story.

Succeed through subtraction. This man is a lean thinker. And he bears an uncanny physical resemblance to both John Shook and James Womack, after they borrowed some hair from Mike Rother. If Elmore Leonard cared what a gemba walk was, he might say something like this:

1. Never open a gemba walk dialogue with weather. Show some respect for the people you are talking to on the gemba. Know who they are, know something about them, ask about their kids, their hobby, their dog, whatever lights up their life.

2. Avoid prologues. Don’t spend time explaining who you are or why you are walking the floor and asking questions. If you need to this, you don’t trust them or they don’t trust you. If they are surprised to see you, that’s a problem. Build trust first.

3. Never use an interrogative other than “why?” to carry dialogue. Go ahead and use the other interrogatives such as “what” and “how” to start the dialogue. Stick with “why” to carry the dialogue forward. You’re on a gemba walk to identify lack of standards, standards that are not attainable or standards not being followed, and engage people in thinking about why this is so. Encourage them to find creative solutions to these problems.

4. Never use the word “not” to modify the interrogative “why?” You’re smart, maybe you’re in a position of power. It’s terribly tempting to show that by giving answers. You’re not on a gemba walk to solve problems. Instead, develop the sensitivity to see everyday problems, the skills to solve problems creatively, in a scalable way. People expect leaders to solve problems. Your “why not..?” robs them of an opportunity to come up with solutions themselves. Let them learn how to fix it, even if it takes longer.

5. Keep your “a-ha!” moments under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 steps of gemba walking. If you’re doing a whole lot more learning, you might need to go back to kaizen school before you’re ready to teach. Or maybe just keep walking.

6. Never use the words “maybe” or “I guess.” You’re solving problems again. Stop speculating. See rule #3.

7. Use technical terms, jargon, sparingly. Speak in code only if you want to keep secrets. Speak the language of the floor. Listen with an open mind to whatever lessons it will yield. Humble yourself on the gemba walk and become the learner.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of problems. You’re walking the gemba to check the level of understanding of the problem solving process, not whether they have the right solution. The right process yields the right results.

9. Don’t ask people for great detail in describing places and things. Take a healthy interest in the workplace, the product, the process. Don’t let curiosity take over and lose focus on the purpose of the gemba walk. It’s not industrial tourism.

10. Try to leave out the part that customers tend to skip. You know, the non value added parts. Oh, that’s most of your operation? Sorry. You better get busy with kaizen.

  1. Zane Ferry

    January 12, 2012 - 9:45 pm

    Always appreciate your references to great writers, Jon. Like great Kaizenists, they are constantly dissatisfied with their work, fearlessly whittling away at what seems irreducable to the rest of us. The short stories and poems of Raymond Carver come to mind.
    And there is consensus in the fine arts too: “It is well with me only when I have a chisel in my hand.” -Michelangelo

  2. Jamie Flinchbaugh

    January 13, 2012 - 2:08 am

    That’s a very original source of building advice for lean application. Great job – I love it.
    The only one I would disagree with is #2 – avoid prologues. Yes, you shouldn’t launch into a soapbox rant about the benefits of direct observation. And I also agree that if they are surprised to see you, it’s a problem. But how do you build that trust without informed action. That’s different than simply action. If there is no trust, then every action is seem through the lens of mistrust which can distort even well intentioned actions. Informed action helps chip away at this, albeit slowly. People do need to understand what you’re doing, and then have it backed up by the right actions by you (and just as important, not the wrong actions such as punishment), to build that trust.
    Maybe this is only a conditional exception, but it’s a set of conditions that are frequent enough that I think it’s important to mention.

  3. david k waltz

    January 13, 2012 - 3:35 am

    How do #2 and #3 work together? It would seem that if you are out there solely to identify things that are wrong,this will raise defensiveness and lead to a lack of trust.

  4. Kathleen

    January 13, 2012 - 6:24 pm

    I’m not familiar with this author by name (maybe by title?) but it would seem he practices the lessons from On writing well by William Zinsser. It’s a classic. Everyone who writes with any regularity and cares about the craft, should read it once a year.
    Now I’ll have to go look up this author!

  5. Jon Miller

    January 14, 2012 - 12:13 pm

    Hi David
    The idea with #2 is that a certain amount of education, communication and trust building has happened before gemba walks are introduced as routine things into an environment. This is not to say one should wait months to do a gemba walk or that a gemba walk should never be done in a hostile environment. People need to be comfortable being asked “why?” based on a “no blame” culture and confidence that problems raised won’t get you shot.
    Jamie said it well in his comment – an introduction of the whole idea of gemba walks, problem solving based on 5 why, etc. must be introduced well in advance.
    The point is that this should not be required as a “prologue” to discrete encounters during a gemba walk.

  6. John Santomer

    January 14, 2012 - 10:20 pm

    Dear Jon,
    Good day to you. I will throw the “apple of discomfort” out there and hope that I won’t get shot from your blogs… 😉
    A no blame culture takes time to build and even if there is a trust level established at some point – a number of people can’t help the feeling of getting insecured specially if the “gemba” walks “accidentally” aims a “smoking gun” on a person’s door. Work cultures is one of the hardest things to curb but not impossible though…It just takes different time lengths and levels for everyone. Kaizen tools are readily accepted once this level of trust has been achieved.

  7. Olga Flory

    January 26, 2012 - 7:53 am

    My comment is a bit delayed as I didn’t have an opportunity to read your post until this morning. You made a very interesting conneciton and I found all 10 rules to be quite legitimate. In regard to building trust and a prologue discussion, it’s my understanding that by the “prologue”, you didn’t mean any conversation that helps a leader build rtust with employees. My guess is that you were talking about “hand shaking and baby kissing” attempts by some leaders who are not comfortable at the gemba and who, instead of addressing work-related issues to to help people build problem solving capabilities go into discussions about the latest football game, or ask quesitons about their families, or talk about weather, etc. This kind of prologue is a pure muda. However, if a leader who is just starting to do gemba walks thinks that people may be surprised to see him or her, there’s nothing wrong with takign the time to explain the purpose of their visit, inlcuding the focus on the process, not individuals.
    Again, great way to help leaders think about right behaviors at the gemba. Thank you,

  8. Robert D

    February 9, 2012 - 8:04 am

    Hi Jon
    I noticed some people had issues with certain items on the list. I am going to give them a slightly different spin.
    Rule 1. Avoid weather talk. If trust is to grow you need a relationship with others and you need to understand them. By getting to know them you build a relationship, and by showing you care about them you strengthen it. Trust comes from a strong relationship with others.
    Rule 2 Avoid prologues. It does not mean you never have to use one, but it means you work toward having a relationship and trust with people on the work floor so that you no longer need it.
    Rule 3 Why is the only word that gets people moving toward the root cause of the what (usually a problem) the how when and where are either already know with the what, or you will find them out along with the why answers. And they are rather unimportant because onve you find a root cause, and have implemented a solution they cannot re-occur.
    Rule 4 is simply avoiding telling them what to do, you do not need a handicapped workforce.
    Anyone can avoid these mistakes by getting to know the people before starting the gemba walks. Take some time to talk to workers during lunches, breaks, before and after work. Lay the relationship ground work before hand, so you can earn their trust.
    Rule 5 is simply put as knowing what is actually happening in the workplace, to many a ha moments means you had no clue as to what really goes on. Which asks the question if you are qualified to be running the place.
    Rule 6 is simply being able to make and stick to a decision, if the boss cannot how do we expect workers too.
    Rule 7 is do not hide behind intellilect sounding terms if you cannot describe something in simple language anyone can understand you really do not know much.
    Rule 8 and 9 are avoid micro-management. If you could do it all yourself why do you have staff?
    Rule 10 is simply know what your customer actually wants or needs, not what you think you can charge them extra for.
    All in all they are great rules, but everyone needs to know that they apply only in the right environment.

  9. david k waltz

    February 9, 2012 - 2:43 pm

    Jon, Thank you for the clarification, I think I understand the distinction now, though it does bring up some of the things John raised.
    It can be very tricky for leaders in some parts of a company to adopt this when the whole company has not, as even when that units leader has built up trust themselves, it may not be enough to counter-weight the organizational mis-trust everywhere else.

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