Going to the Gemba vs MBWA

6 min read

Companies are always looking for ways to improve their productivity, safety, and of course, profit margins. While there are many different strategies that have been shown to be effective in various ways. For example, companies that put more effort into visual communication can help to improve the safety of the facility quite significantly.

While this should definitely be done, there are also certain changes and strategies for improvement that can actually benefit the entire organization. One of these things is making sure that managers are spending real-time with their employees on a regular basis. There are two main systems of how this is done. The two systems are known as gemba (or gemba walks) and managing by walking around (MBWA). Learning about each of these systems will help you to decide which one is right for your facility so that you can implement it properly and get the best possible results.

What is Gemba?

Gemba is a term that comes from Japan and is translated roughly as ‘the real place.’ While it is used in several different ways in the Japanese language, in English its only real meaning is in reference to the place where work is being done within a facility. For example, in an auto mechanic’s garage, gemba would be the area where the vehicle lifts are and work is performed. In a manufacturing facility, there would be multiple gemba locations, which would be each machine or other place where value is created for customers. If your business implements this strategy, one of the first things to do is identify where gemba is in your facility.

The management strategy is known as gemba, or gemba walks is quite simple. It instructs managers and supervisors to spend time where the work is being done. While the office work that they complete is still important, going on a gemba walk and watching how work is done, talking to employees, and just being in that area has shown to be just as critical.

While every company will do gemba slightly differently, the goal is to make sure to go and see each area and learn as much as possible about what is going on and how things are doing. Some important things to include when implementing gemba include the following:

  • Scheduled Walks – Managers should set aside time on a regular basis to conduct gemba walks. The frequency can vary but it should be done regularly so that not to much time goes between each walk.
  • Specific Destinations – If a manager has more than one gemba location, they need to make sure to schedule walks to each one regularly. No areas should be neglected.
  • Asking Questions – Managers need to be asking open-ended questions to get as much information as possible by the employees. Employees are the experts in any given role and when given the opportunity, they will be the ones who can give valuable insights.
  • Focused on Improvements – The end goal of a gemba walk is not just to chat with employees. Instead, the manager should always be looking and listening for improvement opportunities. If gemba walks are not leading to specific change and improvement, it is likely being done improperly.
  • Guided by Employees – While the manager will have a specific destination in mind, and have specific questions they want to ask, the answers should be driven by the employees. When a manager asks a question, it is going to help prompt a conversation. Let the employees guide the following conversation as it will naturally go to where they have the most concerns, which will be where improvement opportunities are.

These are some of the key things that should be focused on during a gemba walk. Of course, each manager and workplace is going to be unique, so the gemba walk process should be customized to meet those needs.

What is MBWA?

Management by walking around is also a strategy where the managers and supervisors need to get up and walk around to the different areas for which they are responsible. With MBWA, the idea is primarily that when people from the leadership team are spending time with the employees, they will naturally gain insights and learn more about how things are going. From there, they are able to make changes and other decisions that will help to improve the facility.

Ideally, during the process of MBWA the manager will go through all the different areas that they are responsible for. This can be done in one walk or spread out across multiple different days depending on how large of an area they are responsible for. The following are some of the key aspects of the MBWA strategy:

  • Unguided Walks – While the manager will want to walk through areas that they are responsible for, the location that they go should be intentionally unplanned. The idea is that they will see people, activity, or other things that draw their attention so they will go to check it out.
  • Talking to People – When the manager stops to talk with employees, they should let them talk about what they want. Having a set of pre-conceived questions is believed to often prevent the employees from discussing things that are most important to them.
  • Share Information – While the conversation is typically guided by the employees, managers should use the MBWA strategy as an opportunity to share information. Making announcements, for example, can be done during this time rather than through an email or other less personal communication.
  • Making Changes – When a manager is walking around and they see something that is not being done correctly or could be improved, they should be making changes on the fly. This allows for constant improvement opportunities every time they leave their office.

As with gemba walks, MBWA is going to be customized based on the unique personality of the managers, the type of environment where it is used, and other factors. The most important thing for this strategy is to get people in leadership roles out onto the shop floor to spend time with the employees.

What is the Difference Between Gemba and MBWA?

On the surface, gemba and MBWA seem very similar. They both involve having managers get out of their offices and spending time with the teams on the floor. If you don’t look closely at the details of each of these options, it is easy to assume that they are just two different names for the same thing. The reality is, however, that they actually have some very important differences, including these:

  • How Changes Are Made – While both of these systems work to make improvements and changes to the company, gemba walks follow the proven strategy of gathering information and making planned changes. MBWA changes are often done on the fly, which can cause problems.
  • Topics of Discussion – It is true that conversations that occur on a gemba walk have the employees saying what they want to say, the main questions and focus are determined by the leadership team. This helps to prevent the time spent with employees from turning into just a chat session about unimportant things, which can happen with MBWA.
  • Structured – Gemba walks are very structured. The manager knows where they are going to be spending time, how long they will be there, and what they will ask about. With MBWA, the manager is wandering around and deciding where to go based on what catches their attention.

This is not to say that one system is better than the other. They just have different concepts behind them and goals in mind.

Is Gemba or MBWA Right for You?

It is obvious that having managers spending time with employees is a good idea and can lead to many significant changes and improvements. The question that needs to be answered for most companies is whether the gemba or MBWA strategies are the right options. Fortunately, it is pretty easy to determine when each one is the right strategy.

Management by walking around is a great option when there are clear problems, especially problems related to employee performance and morale. Simply having a manager out there and interacting with employees will give them the opportunity to see the issues that are caused by the people and address them immediately. Generally speaking, MBWA should be seen as a temporary solution to clear problems that need to be solved. It can be extremely effective over a relatively short period of time and help to facilitate rapid changes related to performance and personal.

Gemba walks, on the other hand, are a much more focused and precise strategy. This long-term approach helps to facilitate continuous improvement not only in regard to how employees are working but also in the processes that are in place and just about everything else. By following the standard ‘plan, do, check, act methodology, you will be able to discover problems or improvement opportunities on a gemba walk, plan out an effective solution, and make the changes needed. Over time, this can lead to dramatic benefits for the company.

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