Are you a good discoverer?

Are you a discoverer, an investigator? Hopefully, the scheduled gemba walk is not the only time you visit the workplace.  Another time is when something happens, and people escalate the situation to you.  To be able to help, you need to understand what happens, and for that, nothing is better than go and see what is going on.  But those times, you visit gemba with one objective in mind, looking at a previously defined situation.

Every opportunity you have to walk around the workplace is a chance to learn.   While I worked in manufacturing, I used to take every available opportunity to go and see to learn something.  You need to develop a new skill, being a discoverer.  

How do you become a discoverer?

How do you start uncovering potential problems or finding things to improve?  You need to develop discoverer’s eyes or become good in what I used to call, look for trouble.  

When you visit or walk through an area, not just walk, see, and understand the process.  Look at the three real things of the work area, the workplace, the facts, and the work in process.  Unleash your curiosity, observe the environment, how things flow, how people communicate.  Try to understand why things happen and how things work.  Take attention to detail of the steps sequence, best practices, and potential opportunities.  Learn about the metrics to measure the process’s success and if there is a way to highlight abnormal situations.  Is there any work in process?  Why it exists?  Does the flow stop?  Do you see waste? Can you see any risks or safety hazards? Talk with the people in the area and ask questions to understand the situation, never to judge.

Developing your skills

All that looks like a lot but, as you get used to it, you will do it quite fast.  The more you walk to see and understand, the better discoverer of opportunities you become.  There are a couple of things that you can do to develop that skill, for example, the following.

  • Visit an area that you are not familiar with, like a different process or department.
  • Volunteer to participate in continuous improvement events out of your work area
  • Grab the standard work document of one of your department processes and audit it
  • Learn a new job, shadow someone from your team.

Take every opportunity you have to explore a process, learn about it, and discover how to improve it. When you visit take close attention to the workplace, the facts, and the work in process.  Walk the process, observe, ask with respect, learn what happens and why, and finally discover how to improve it.  Being a good discoverer or investigator is an art. The art of finding trouble or improvement opportunities. Three characteristics of good discoverers are curiosity, detail-oriented, and communicative.  Let’s be good discoverers, like cats, and find all the hidden gems in our processes.

What to do before, during, and after the gemba walk

Gemba walks, like any other process, need a consistent structure or standard.  It helps to avoid confusion, clarify the purpose and intent, and provides general steps that facilitate customization for specific situations without losing the essence of what a gemba walk is.  

The walks have three stages, which happen before, during, and after the walk.  When you coach your team to be walkers with a purpose, you become more effective, learning by doing.  The more you practice, the better you become.


When you plan to go out for a gemba walk, the first thing you need to know is the purpose of the walk and to what area you will go.  Each walk needs a purpose or objective, which can be coaching, learn about a specific situation within a process, or looking for improvement opportunities.  Show respect for the owners of the area you are going to visit by letting them know in advance what is the purpose of your visit and how they can help.  Be honest about your intentions and clear about your expectations.  Right before the walk, take five minutes to explain the purpose and expectations of the walk to the team walking with you.   Remember that two of the walk benefits are to develop your team and drive alignment within the organization.

During the Walk

While walking, you will go and see, show respect, and ask what, then why. Understand the purpose of work and performance expectations. During the walk, observe if there is any gap between what is supposed to happen and what is happening.  Use the scientific process (PDCA) to identify the reasons and find the root cause.  As a leader, focus on the process as the source of errors, not the people.  

Ask what first, what is the purpose, what are the steps, or what are you trying to accomplish?  Asking those questions requires being mindful of how you are asking, not only your tone but your body language as well.  You want to show respect, listen to their words, be empathic, and let them feel that you care about their needs and feelings.  Make your actions consistent with your words, and do what you said you would do, be trustworthy.  

Once you gain an understanding of the situation, you can ask why questions.  While trying to gain a deeper understanding, it is appropriate to use the 5 Why technique.  

After the Walk

After the walk, take another five minutes to get an understanding of its effectiveness.  Listen to the observations and discussion points from the walkers.  Clarify any doubts and capture all observation and improvement ideas.  Get agreement on what improvements the group will work with and combine them into one list. Create a follow-up plan, who will work with what, and preliminary timeline. 

Do your best to stay focused on the agreed purpose of the walk.  Lead the walk in such a way that walkers understand that it is more effective if everybody focused on one thing at a time.  Unless you see something that is urgent, like a safety situation, do not deviate from the purpose agreed during the preparation stage.  Remember, continuous improvement works because it is focused on small improvements at a time. 

Gemba Walk, What does it mean?

Take a gemba walk, go see, ask why, show respect.

Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho’s words, “Go see, ask why, show respect,” are famous. They are like a creed for lean practitioners around the world. Gemba is the place where value is created, where the work is done. Go to gemba is one of the core principles of continuous improvement. Cho’s words are a summary of what going to gemba is. What do those words mean? What is a gemba walk?

Go See, take a gemba walk

The purpose of the gemba walk is to understand the work and grasp the current situation. Some people know them as observation walks. A process has three versions, what should happen, what we think happens, and what happens. Certainly, you will get an understanding of what is happening by observing everything within the area. In other words, you go to gemba to observe the people, equipment or machine performance, and the work environment. If you notice any gaps or problems, focus your attention on one at a time.

Go see these things

These are the things you need to see for yourself.

  • What people do, are they following the standards?
  • How people spend their time, how is the work environment?
  • How people move around the work area
  • The workflow, how the product or information flows through.
  • Where the flow stops?  Watch for interruptions and delays.
  • Handoffs between workstations, how the materials, ingredients or information arrives and leaves the station.  

Remember that you are there to understand the situation, not to judge.  All gemba walkers are there to practice observation and active listening.  Focus on the system, quality, cost, and morale.  Look for improvement opportunities. Practice respect while asking questions, let the team shine.

During a gemba walk, ask what?

Even though Cho’s phrase says, ask why, the first question is what, not why.  What is the purpose of this process, what it intends to achieve?  Only ask why type questions, which are to diagnose, after you understand the process and the current situation.  Ask why there is a gap to the standard, why delays happened, why does rework occur, and others.  Listen to the answers to understand the point of view of the people who do the work, keep learning from them.  The conversation will lead you to a point where you can ask what if.  At this time, you can ask for their ideas, what if you change the method?  

Gemba Walks are a powerful tool to promote the continuous improvement culture or a fast way to kill it!  In a blame-free culture, your associates will be honest, talk freely about their concerns, and share their ideas without problems.  The way you, and your leadership team reacts to comments and concerns, and how diligently you are to facilitate their work and solve their problems will determine how successful these walks are.  As a system, gemba walks supports the scientific method (PDCA) because it is based on actual observation.  

What is a gemba walk? What are the benefits of doing a gemba walk?

A gemba walk is defined as the act of going to see gemba, the place where the process happens, and value is created.   During the walk, you will do the following.

Go See

The purpose of the walk is to understand the work and grasp the entire situation.  The associates must know the goal of your visit.  Let them know that you are there to improve a process or understand a problem, not to evaluate the people’s performance.  Go to the area and observe what is going on, observe to understand, not to judge.

Ask What

The second piece to gain understanding is to talk with the people who do the work.  Understand the situation better by asking open-ended questions.  Always ask what first, then why.

Show Respect

You are visiting the workplace of your team, their home for eight or more hours, respect them, and their second home.  Sometimes the following ways to show respect are ignored.  Do not judge, or make questions that can lead to blaming a person or department.  Listen more than you talk and do not give up the answer, let the associates learn and shine while explaining concepts and ideas that they master, not you.  Helping people to develop their skills and raise their self-esteem is a great way to show respect.

Benefits of the Gemba Walks

  • Learn about the process and the challenges associated to it, see what is really happening
  • Get facts to find the answer to a problem, or potential ideas to improve the process.
  • Develop the skills or your team, and other associates by coaching them on how to get facts using direct observation and the scientific or critical thinking (PDCA) to solve problems
  • Drive alignment inside the organization by modeling behaviors and communicating expectations.

Gemba or observation walks are a great tool to develop your team skills.  Do not waste the chance to show how much you appreciate and care about your team by not acting with respect.  Leaders must show respect at all times.  These walks are a great tool to complement the continuous improvement journey by supporting the culture change and providing focus and follow-up to what is important.