A significant challenge for businesses investing in Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) is recognizing automation opportunities within one’s own operation. Executives are usually far enough removed from the workflow that identifying such processes is often difficult. Those in the trenches, on the other hand, may have too granular of a focus.
The gemba walk can be an especially useful tool to focus the automation program on what is most impactful to the organization. It gets upper-level management out on the shop floor for pre-arranged walk-throughs with workers at all levels. When used consistently and effectively, it sparks ideas for continuous improvement and, in turn, process automation.
What is gemba?
“Gemba” is a Japanese term translating literally to, “the real place.” Continuous improvement uses gemba to mean, “where the value is created.” It references the actual location where something takes place or where an event occurred. Gemba is not a proxy for work such as a conference room where work processes are discussed. Nor is it a statistical representation of work output.
During a gemba walk, leadership (usually at least two) visits the worksite to observe important processes, ask clarifying questions, and engage in discussion. It is more purposeful than so-called “management by walking around (MBWA),” a term that’s come to describe congratulatory, back-slapping rounds by senior management. Each gemba walk has an articulated and publicized theme. And unlike MBWA, its objective is clear: to promote a more thorough understanding of key work processes.
The gemba walk is a foundational, lean principal and is widely used outside the context of process automation. However, it is also particularly valuable as an RPA tool. It provides an opportunity for strategic leadership to experience critical work processes firsthand. This leads to a more detailed, comprehensive understanding and enhances relations with subordinates.
Walkers can and should retreat to the boardroom for discussion following a gemba walk. The purpose of the walk itself is not to share recommendations or implement change but simply to listen. Leaders should certainly not use it as an opportunity to judge or penalize those observed. This would likely cause participants to shut down and become more resistant to change.
Leaders engaging in a gemba walk should carefully note verbal and non-verbal cues from those they are questioning. Even seemingly minor observations can be illuminating. How do they feel about the processes and tools they’re using? What are they noticeably expressive or emotional about? If they have particular complaints, where are these focused?
Such feedback can help prioritize the work of automation solutions.
Portions of a process that garner the most negative feedback may need to be at the head of the line for process improvement or automation. Those with the most positive feedback can serve as models for the refinement of other processes.
In order to enjoy its optimal advantages, the gemba walk can’t be an isolated event. Some executives might walk multiple times a week or even daily. But it should not become routine; varying the timing and path of the walk is important. It becomes an integral component of the organization’s continuous-improvement strategy. For those implementing IPA, continuous improvement feeds the automation pipeline.
The gemba walk isn’t a tool exclusively for automating businesses. Those that haven’t implemented IPA still find many reasons to employ it regularly for continuous process improvement. But gemba walks remain an excellent means of gathering information about broken or inefficient processes and the processes best suited for business automation.