Introductory Note: In process improvement, we teach the importance of “going to the gemba”. Wade Blamer is a stand-out innovator in the City, and in particular, his innovation superpower is going to the gemba. We asked him to share his best practices, so read on to learn about what it means to go to the gemba, what this looks like in action, and some valuable tips you can integrate into your own work.

Innovating is elevating. It brings your processes to new highs of efficiency and effectiveness. But before you can soar among the clouds of innovation, you’ve gotta learn how the plane flies first.

Over the past five years in my roles within the City and County of Denver, I’ve been involved in a lot of innovations. I’ve been fortunate to work within two departments who prioritize the work of Peak Academy and the value of process improvement. I’ve collaborated on dozens of multi-team innovations, and also led many innovations directly tied to my own work.

The one theme that is consistent with all successful innovations? Gemba walks. For those not in the know, gemba is a Japanese term that means “the actual place”. Detectives at a crime scene in Japan refer to it as a gemba. It’s not uncommon for a Japanese reporter to say that their story is being reported from gemba. In the world of innovation, gemba is defined as the place where value is created. For example, the factory floor is referred to as gemba in manufacturing. In an office setting, gemba might be a customer service counter.

A gemba walk is when you perform the action of going to see an actual process, learn and know the work, and ask questions. The gemba walk is an innovators crucial opportunity to step away from their desk and walk the proverbial floor of their workplace to identify wasteful actions.

Gemba is mission critical for any process improvement, because it is the meat and potatoes of your innovation stew. The perspectives, values and pain points uncovered through gemba walks are the main drivers of identifying waste

In my normal gemba walks, I typically sit with one or more of my colleagues who are involved in the process improvement. Sometimes we know what process we want to observe very specifically to identify waste, but more often we start off just knowing broadly that something about the overall process is inefficient.

First, we establish some basic information about the process. Who it is intended to serve? How long has it been operating this way? What role does each person play in the process? What are some basic volume or time statistics (e.g. We usually serve 12 or 13 customers per day and each transaction takes between five and ten minutes.)?  

Then, you watch the work happen. A team member begins walking through each step of the process, why it occurs, what resources are involved, their workarounds, shortcuts and the variances to time or errors that can occur along the way. As much as I can, I try to just listen for as long as possible without asking anything but clarifying questions. From my own personal experience, as soon as you start asking leading questions (e.g. Have you ever tried doing it this other way instead?) it influences the gemba walk participants and they might begin crafting the information they share in a different way.

Take notes as fast as you can. If you’re slow at taking notes, consider recording the process on video. Sometimes it’s the nuances of the process that can reveal the biggest opportunities for process improvement. The team member might casually say something like “and this form has a lot of unnecessary fields, so you just have to know which fields are the most important” or “I’m not sure why we use this document next, but that’s how I was trained.”

In those examples the team member has identified waste, a lack of role/process clarity and diminished ownership of the process in just two off-the-cuff comments. Inefficiency loves to breed in spaces such as these.

Tip sheet detailing how to save money on mail services
Example of a document created with information from a gemba walk

Once you finish witnessing the process in the gemba walk, now it’s your time to ask more direct questions. It’s vital to get to know the team members involved in the process. We all want to be listened to and feel validated. It’s also the first critical step in showing your team members that you are genuinely interested in working to help everyone involved.

Some of my common questions include:

  • What’s your least favorite part of completing that form/process? Why?
  • Do you get frustrated with the process?
  • Do you think our customers are frustrated about parts of the process?
  • Are there things you often have to correct in the process, or recommunicate to customers or coworkers multiple times?
  • What do you value about your work?
  • What do you dread?
  • Do you see the importance of the process, or does it seem like a repetitive, burdensome task?
  • How would you change the process?

As you learn the process, the pain points, and the team members and customers perspectives, you begin to better understand the work and your fellow team members. You start to be able to talk in the terms used in the process (usually this lingo is a bunch of city acronyms). Essentially, you and your team members begin speaking the same language. It builds better rapport and trust.

I feel fortunate, because as the person responsible for marketing and communicating General Services processes to our customers, it allows me to build gemba walks into my work. I love gemba walks. I get to sit with my colleagues, learn about the things that are important to them and that they value, and better understand their day-to-day work.

It’s easy to sit at your desk and make guesses on how a process can be improved from afar. We all want quick wins that we think will solve the problem. But if you don’t have the voices and perspectives of those most impacted by the process, you can’t walk the walk and talk the talk for ideal process improvement.

Photo of Wade Balmer
Wade Balmer

Wade Balmer has worked for the City and County of Denver for five years. His first role was as a Marketing and Communications Specialist within the Office of Human Resources. In his current role, he serves as the Public Information Officer for the Department of General Services. He received his black belt from Peak Academy in 2016. He enjoys cheese.

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