Ohno and the Gemba Walk:


Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System, was a firm believer in “Gemba Kanri” which translates from Japanese as “workplace management”. Taiichi Ohno and Setsuo Mito wrote a conversation-style book called “Why Not Do It Just-In-Time”. This was translated and released in English as “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”. Taiichi Ohno talked about the essence of gemba walks in the book. He did not call them gemba walks but he used what was well known at that time; Managing by Walking Around (MBWA) to explain his thoughts on gemba walks.

Gemba Walk:

Gemba is the actual place of action. Gemba Walk is thus a walk to and in the gemba. Ohno clearly explained the purpose of going to the gemba: You go to the gemba to understand and grasp the facts. Ohno said the following;

For the manager wandering around the work place, signs, charts, data and standards that accurately measure current work place conditions are indispensible.

Ohno emphasized that doing gemba walks without established standards is not worthwhile. Ohno viewed problems as deviations from the standards, and if the standards are not established, you will not know what to look for. The standards (also called as Standard Work) represent the most effective combination of human activity, equipment activity and the product being produced. The standards are visual and convey three vital pieces of information;

  • Takt time – the rhythm of production. This explains how often a part should come out.
  • Work Sequence – this shows the sequence of how operations are to be performed. The sequence is created with input from the operators, and this is the easiest and the current best sequence of steps to perform the operation.
  • Standard WIP (Work in Process) – this is the quantity of product allowed in the work station, and this also includes the part the operator is working on. Any extra parts are an indication of disruptions.

The idea of Managing by Walking Around was put forth by Tom Peters and Nancy Austin. The intent of MBWA was proposed as a “technology for implementing the obvious.” Mr. Peters and Ms. Austin proposed that MBWA would enable figuring out exactly what needs to be done. MBWA would help finding out the information that is not readily available otherwise. From this aspect, gemba walks also have the same goal – to implement the obvious. MBWA did not explain what to look for or how to find out the information where as Ohno clearly laid out the “what” and the “where”.

Ohno advises to post the standards in each production areas that everyone can see at a glance;

  • What type of work place it is,
  • What the production amount is,
  • What the sequence of operations should be.

This (posting standards) is fundamental and the model for visual control.

Ohno brilliantly described that the production plant is simultaneously a free and generous creature, and an insidious and mischievous nuisance. We should be fascinated by the challenges of discovering ways to deal with this entity. Ohno goes on to explain that for a production plant to properly operate, people should assume leadership and bring out the best in the machines and the system. To do so, people must utilize their intelligence and imagination to improve their work environment as well as investigate problems in the production plant. This is the main idea behind Ohno’s teaching for continuously improving the standards. He would scold the supervisors if the standards are not changed frequently.

The gemba walks often open doors to develop the operators. The first step of kaizen is to teach people how to identify and see waste. This is akin to teaching a person to fish rather than giving him fish every day.

Another aspect that Ohno described was something new to me- he explained that everybody has a principal work place (gemba). However, several of us also have multiple sub-workplaces (sub-gembas). He then stated another reason for doing the gemba walks;

To generate new information and trigger the imagination, a critical mind needs different environments.

My thoughts:

The Gemba Walks provides the meeting ground for top-down and bottom-up management systems. The standards make it easier for management from top-down. The employees are also enabled to make bottom-up proposals since they understand the common goal.

The main purposes of the gemba walks are to identify deviations from the standard, and to look for opportunities to change (improve) the standard.

The following are the desirable outcomes of gemba walks.

  • Self development by observing and learning
  • Developing others to observe and learn
  • Process improvement to establish the next standard
  • Harmony (bringing out the best)

The following are things to keep in mind doing gemba walks;

  • Do not immediately show them how to fix a problem
  • Do not have preconceived notions
  • Show respect, do not be an expert
  • Challenge the status quo
  • Always ask questions as “what should be the ideal state (standards) and what is the current state?” Explain problems always as deviations from the standard.

I will finish this off with a neat Ohno story from the book, “Just-In-Time For Today and Tomorrow”;

Setsuo Mito approached Ohno and asked about the origin of his name – Taiichi.

“Your father probably named you hoping that you would become a ‘patient’ child (nin T AIno)”, Mito said.

Ohno simply replied, “My father named me after his job in Dairen, where he worked with ‘firebricks’ (TAIkarenga)”.

Always keep on learning…

In case you missed it, my last post was Does Lean = the Elimination of Waste?


3 thoughts on “Ohno and the Gemba Walk:

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