46 The FABRICATOR NOVEMBER 2017
As I write this article, I am sitting here in the Rocky Mountains enjoying a short vaca- tion. The view is majestic, the aspens have
turned bright yellow, and the air is crisp. But it is
not until I take a hike up a trail that the real beauty
comes into focus—an oddly shaped tree, a steep
incline, and the awesomeness of a mother moose
and baby running by the creek.
What does this have to do with metal fabrication?
It illustrates, albeit in a different context, the benefits of going on a gemba walk. In manufacturing,
we go to gemba to see operational details and to appreciate value-adding work.
Observing the plant from the supervisor’s desk,
the manager’s office, or the executive’s corner
suite is like viewing the Rocky Mountains from your
car. You probably think you know what is going on
based on reports and meetings. Hike the gemba
trail, though, and you see and experience the detail.
Gemba is a Japanese term that translates to “where
the work is at.” Some definitions specify “the real
place” or “the actual place,” but the most important
point is the reference to “where value-adding work
is taking place.” Put simply, gemba is where work
Everyone at your company works, of course—the
welder, assembler production manager, the accounts payables clerk, the plant manager. We all
work, and we all have gemba. In the current context, though, we will define gemba as work that,
from the customer’s perspective, adds value. And
we’ll define value as anything that helps transform
a product or service into something the customer
wants and pays for.
The welder’s gemba is the weld table and surrounding cell. The assembler’s gemba is in the assembly station where he puts together parts. The
engineer’s gemba is at the SolidWorks® station,
where he develops a 3-D model for a design-to-or-der product. From customers’ perspectives, these
examples represent value, and that value is created
A gemba walk helps everyone at the company
understand what is really happening. It helps solve
problems and puts the focus on where you can have
the greatest impact for the customer. The person on
the gemba walk must observe seriously, ask ques-
tions, and develop a deep understanding of the
work. In short, the gemba walk is a learning oppor-
tunity. It could be in response to a specific situation
or simply an opportunity to learn about the work.
Say you work at a plant experiencing operational
problems affecting a customer. Orders have shipped
late for the past couple of months. The customer is
understandably upset, but more importantly, the
customer is beginning to question the plant’s capability and reliability.
What does the leadership team do? They look at
the timing of order entry, lead-time offsets in the
system, dates the operations are completed, and
other system- and administrative-related items.
They create a stir in the production planning and
customer service areas. The result is order realignment, expediting, and general havoc for all involved. Yet little attention is directed toward going
to gemba. The result: Leaders are probably working on the symptoms rather than root causes of the
Had they gone to gemba, they might have seen
that material was queued in front of the press brake
because of downtime incurred as a result of an ongoing hydraulic malfunction that caused multiple
7- to 15-minute stoppages every shift. The problem
caused a defective bend that led to rework and, ultimately, further erosion of capacity.
Compared to major stoppages—like, say, a blown
pump that grinds an entire operation to a halt for
two shifts—minor stoppages just don’t get much attention, yet collectively they are just as disruptive.
The shop just limps by. Without the gemba walk,
this problem is destined to show up again.
Things Are OK … Right?
Now imagine you manage a plant where, all in all,
things seem to be going well. Daily and weekly performance reports show positive trends. Cost, quality, and delivery metrics are meeting targets. The
pace around the office is steady, and the stress levels seem low. It sounds like the plant manager and
her staff have everything under control. The least
risky approach is to stay out of operations’ way and
let them keep doing what they are doing … right?
As a progressive plant manager, though, you take
a different approach. Buying in to the purpose of
the gemba walk, you go to the various operations
(where the work really happens), observe, and
learn. Though everything appears to be running
smoothly, you still have good reason to invest time
in getting to know and understand the work.
You and other leaders find a spot on the floor to
stand and observe people in action: machine operators, welders, material handlers, supervisors. You
ask all of them questions. You seek to understand
the flow and what happens when the flow is disrupted. You see how machines and equipment work, as
well as the state of cleanliness and organization
(5S). Your newfound knowledge and appreciation
make you and your team better decision-makers,
strategy-setters, and problem-solvers.
Design Your Gemba Walk
Regardless of what you do in your organization, I
encourage you to develop a gemba walk plan. It’s
all about observing, learning, and, perhaps most
important, asking. To that end, write down some
questions. The following list gives you a starting
point that may trigger specific questions pertinent
to your company:
• What are the highlights on the production con-
trol board in the cell or department? Can you clearly
tell how the area is performing?
• Did the cell’s output vary from hour to hour yesterday or today? Do you have good flow in this work
• Do visual controls indicate what job is being
worked on, what operation is being performed, how
the operation should be performed, how much inventory should be available, and where materials/
tools should be located?
• Did today’s sunrise meeting in this area give you
anything you could act upon? Did anyone follow up
on the issues mentioned?
• How did you use takt time and cycle time analysis to determine the proper staffing/resource levels?
• Do you have the appropriate tools to do your
job? Are the tools organized on a shadow board so
you always know where they should be?
• Is everything in this workstation used every
day? If not, should some tools be moved out of the
immediate work area?
Read more from Jeff Sipes at www.thefabricator.com/author/jeff-sipes
Go to gemba
Uncover truth in the shop by hiking the gemba trail