Gemba is a Japanese term meaning “the actual place”. In Lean Management, a gemba walk is the act of directly observing the whole process in action, at the actual location, from end to end, with the people who perform the work.
Sometimes it's easy for managers/executives to become like caged animals in a zoo. They get locked inside their office, totally cut off from the natural habitat where the work is performed. Sure, they've hired people to tell them how processes are working, and they have their fancy reports, graphs, and other tools to gauge what's happening. But do they really tell the whole story?
Even the best measurement tools are no replacement for actually "living" the process. A gemba walk allows management to locate waste, identify “hidden factories” of work, and witness first-hand how value is created for customers. Plus, your employees will respect you for it. You'll fully understand the challenges and struggles they face on a daily basis. Once out there, keep your eyes open for the most common forms of waste (muda). They include any excess transportation, inventory, motion, waiting, overproduction, over processing, and/or defects.
Your organization can even take it a step further by incorporating the gemba walk into your quality management system (QMS) as a key deliverable. Simply require managers to produce a completed gemba checklist at least annually for each and every process they own. This will spur continuous improvement by having managers continually identify and eliminate waste. The really creative managers will often combine this with other quality tools such as value stream mapping, FMEA, and 5S inspection.
So get out of your cage and go on a gemba walk today. You'll love the adventure!