By the CIToolkit content team   |   6 minutes read

Observation and Gemba Walks

Observation

Many managers nowadays try to resolve work-related issues while they are sitting in their office or in the meeting room. Attempting to resolve problems in this way without visiting the actual place and without seeing what’s really happening is not necessarily a successful approach. This article will be highlighting one the most inexpensive data collection methods as well as one of the simplest and most powerful Lean techniques.

An observation is a data collection method used to gather specific information about a process or a situation. It allows the observer to collect the data in a real-time manner and at the location where the data is generated. Observation is intended to be a simple learning method to better understand the actual ‘As-Is’ situation of the daily operation. It is generally an inexpensive method which only requires time and note-taking. Sometimes it is referred to as the “Go See” technique.

Observation Uses

Observations are often used to:

  • Gather information about a process or situation.
  • Verify an existing problem.
  • Understand the actual ‘As-Is’ situation.
  • Measure actual performance against set targets.
  • Measure customer satisfaction and perception of quality.
  • Acquire best practice and benchmark information.

Observation is often used during process improvement and change management initiatives. It helps to verify an existing problem and its possible causes by collecting live data from the actual place where the work is being done. It also allows the observer to fully document the value stream of the process and measure its real performance. During such observation activities, process observation forms can be used to record the observed data, interview responses, improvement opportunities, and any other useful information.


Example of a process observation form

Observation activities can also be applied in the customer service environments. Oftentimes, there is a need to go to the customer’s site to truly understand the viewpoint of customers and how they experience your products and services. This is especially useful to identify customer satisfaction levels which will provide valuable insights for continuous improvement. The key is to carefully observe the reactions where there is a direct contact between the customer and the product or service.


Example of a customer observation form

Types of Observation

Observation Types
  • Silent observation: Useful when collecting raw data and takes only a couple of minutes to one hour.
  • Interactive observation: The observer is required to visit the actual place in order to see the actual process, understand it, ask questions, and learn.
  • Extended observation: The observation period takes much longer time to thoroughly understand the current state of a process.

What is Gemba?

Gemba is a Japanese term that means “the actual place”. It refers to the real place where value is created and where clients are served within the value stream. In manufacturing environments, it often refers to the shop floor where products are manufactured. In the service sector, it may refer to the actual place where a service is delivered to the customer, or where there is a direct interaction between the service provider and the customer.

Gemba

A Gemba walk is one of the most important Lean techniques to understand the current state of any process. Simply put, it is going to the actual place and observing how the work is performed. The purpose of Gemba walks is to get closer to the work and to identify potential areas for improvement. It is important to keep in mind that these walks are not just some boxes that need to be checked, they are however important steps in the journey to continuous improvement.

Performing Gemba walks regularly is very useful to find the different forms of waste and non-value-added activities, and discover where continuous improvement opportunities exist. It allows to gain valuable insights on variabilities, out-of-specification conditions, abnormalities, bottlenecks, redundancies, unsafe acts and conditions, and 5S opportunities. It also allows to observe positive behaviors and good practices, for example, someone who is picking up garbage while walking and throwing it in the trash.

Gemba walkers should focus on something that is moving through the process, for example, a product, an object, a tool, an application, materials and information. They can also focus on the flow of humans, especially in the service sector such as the transportation and hospitality industries. The goal is to find out what is really happening and not what is supposed to happen or whether people are following the procedures or meeting the deadlines.

Gemba walks involve interviewing people, taking their feedback, evaluating their needs, and implementing plans and solutions that will effectively solve their problems and organize their work. People should view these walks as to support them with their needs and issues. When talking to people, be empathetic and supportive, and listen to their concerns and suggestions. It is also important to restrain yourself from providing solutions or judgment and behave more like someone who wants to learn and support.

How to Conduct an Observation

There is no really defined approach to conduct an observation, however, the following points can serve as a useful guide:

Gemba
  • Clearly define the purpose of the observation and how the observed information will be used afterward.
  • Study the process or problem you are about to observe.
  • Prepare an observation form for collecting the desired information.
  • Get permission from the process owner or supervisor to conduct the observation and talk to the people there.
  • Conduct the observation. Visit the actual place where the process or problem takes place.
  • Walk the process, collect data, interview people, and record observations and responses.
  • Take time to document important ideas and findings soon after completing the observation.
  • Share what you have learned in your operational meetings.
  • Take the necessary steps to resolve the problem and improve the process.

Further Information

Be careful not to confuse Gemba walks with auditing. Auditing is all about ensuring compliance, while in Gemba walks, you are looking to understand problems that are impacting the performance.


Gemba walk is very similar to MBWA (Management by Walking Around). However, MBWA is more about strengthening the relationships with people and creating an environment of trust in the workplace.

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