Remote Gemba – Management by Walking Around in Times of Remote Work

What is a Gemba walk?

In lean management, the Gemba walk is a central technique to identify process flaws and wasteful activities in an organization on the way to achieve operational excellence. Gemba walks build the basis of continuous improvement efforts: The manager visits the places on the shop floor where the process is performed (Gemba is the Japanese term for “the real place”) and gets a first-hand picture of what’s going on. He or she observes, asks questions and learns about the actual project execution.

The Gemba Walk Process

This technique, also called management by walking around, is intuitive and easy to perform for manufacturing processes or tasks that require physical movement of goods, material or people. It’s part of the lean methodology. The steps are usually as follows:

  1. Let your team know that you will do a Gemba walk and plan your walk by following the value stream
  2. Focus on the process and its flaws, not the people
  3. Make notes and document your observations using a checklist
  4. Ask questions, listen and observe – don’t suggest changes during the walk

Extract the essence of the Gemba Walk to use it in a remote setting

How can you use Gemba process, when all the work processes you’re interested in are happening inside of computers or between your team members, without any observable movement? Or even worse, what if you can’t even see your team members, because everyone is locked down at home, working remotely?

You can still use this powerful technique! Let’s break it down into its critical components:

  1. Know your value stream
  2. Prepare your team and plan the walk
  3. Do the walk, i.e. seeing the process, understanding how the work is done, asking questions and learning
  4. After the walk, use your observations to improve

You might not be able to walk the floor, but let’s establish the term Gemba Call for this. Our goal is to have step three of the above list as call.

Know your value stream

First, you have to define your value stream. The value stream is the queue of activities through your organization that adds value for the customer.

To be sure that a step adds value, ask yourself: Would a customer pay for this?

Knowing the value stream will allow you to focus on the key points of your operation.

Prepare your team and plan the walk

Introduce the concept of Gemba Walk to your team and explain its remote application. Focus especially on the fact that you are observing processes, not people. You want to make sure to create a fear-free setting to get an accurate picture during the walks.

Do the Remote Gemba Walk

You have different options of using the Gemba Walk ideas in a remote setting.

SEEING THE PROCESS

Whereas you might not be able to see the actual work being performed, you will surely see its results. Examine these results because they might provide some insights into how the work has been performed. Remember, the idea of the Gemba process is to see how work is being performed, so try to find hints in the results.

Besides the technique above, a powerful tool is to let your team members share their screen in the meetings you planned the Gemba walk for. You will soon realize that there is a huge difference between you leading the meeting, demonstrating certain things via screen-sharing, or one of your team members doing it.

Use video calls and screen-sharing from your team to learn how they perform the work.

UNDERSTANDING HOW THE WORK IS DONE

Use the scheduled Gemba calls to have one of your team members demo a process-step from the value chain. If necessary, set up dummy customer information or any other input that you need. Even better, use real data.

Seeing how your team members actually use software, spreadsheets and other tools will give you a better understanding of how they do their work. And it’s seeing and understanding how the work is done is the very definition of the Gemba walk.

Another option is to let one of your team members shoot a quick screen capture video to record the execution of a certain task. That video then is as if you walked the Gemba. A great side effect: Video is a fabulous onboarding tool for remote teams.

Again, it is important to really observe. Ask questions, but do it as neutral as possible – you don’t want to bias any insights towards what your team thinks you want to hear.

ASKING QUESTIONS

You cannot ask too many questions, especially when you are managing remote teams. Ask how tasks were performed. Try to find out assumptions, the process and also which roadblocks or difficulties your team has or had.

Ask why your team thinks the outcome was what it was and what they would do differently next time. Ask your team members explicitly if they have understood a new process initiative.

LEARNING

That’s a mindset rather than a technique, so it’s not really affected by where you generate your insights. The important thing is: Be willing to learn. Don’t judge, and even more importantly, don’t try to come up with solutions or improvements right away.

This patience to learn will do two things: 1. It will increase your team’s acceptance of the transparency measures you are implementing. 2. It will help you to develop a more comprehensive picture of where you actually are with your processes.

After the walk, improve

Analyze your documentation from your Gemba calls and use the tools of process analysis to dig deeper. Use the 5 Whys to find the root cause of a problem: The idea of The Five Whys is super simple. For any given issue you encounter, ask why five times. This iterative questioning of the cause for a phenomenon will lead you to the root cause eventually.

But resist your instincts to start fixing things during your Gemba calls. Wait until after you had the chance to analyze your observation. This will also keep your team open for future Gemba calls.

Following those four steps should enable you to use the idea of the Gemba walk when your team is working remotely.

Please share your experience or opinion about this in the comments section.

Best

Benjamin

2 thoughts on “Remote Gemba – Management by Walking Around in Times of Remote Work

  1. Thank you very much for sharing. Your article was very helpful for me to build a paper on gate.io. After reading your article, I think the idea is very good and the creative techniques are also very innovative. However, I have some different opinions, and I will continue to follow your reply.

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