I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Gemba walk. On one hand I just love the idea to go and see. In fact, whenever I have an issue to solve or a question to ask I prefer to move my butt and go meet someone instead of writing an email, chatting on IM or calling. I just use any pretext I have to meet people face to face.
On the other hand, the idea of the Gemba walk, in its roots, goes way beyond simply solving issues. Just think about all those stories where leaders had their epiphanies when they randomly walked through a factory floor. Gemba walk isn’t just supposed to be an issue solving tool. Its main function is issue discovery, whatever an issue might mean.
And this is where the hate part of my love-hate relationship starts. My previous professional life was leading 150 people. It meant that most of the time I was alienated. In a situation like that, you just don’t go into a team’s room as if nothing happened as almost certainly the observer effect kicks in and you experience something more like a play than reality.
Not to mention that if you happen to be an introvert the whole activity can be insanely difficult for you.
Obviously, it may be a very different experience if the organizational culture of a company is open and people generally trust each other. One, it isn’t that painful. Two, there is less acting and more honest and open discussions.
It is still only halfway through though. As long as someone is willing to become vulnerable and open themselves you will learn something new. There is, however, the whole black mass of issues no one is really aware of so chances that you learn about them during a discussion are non-existent.
In a plant you might spot something just by watching how stuff is arranged on a factory floor. In software development you don’t get even that. And, by the way, even if you brought your Gemba to the level of looking at things, e.g. code review, you still miss the point.
No matter what the problem is, it’s always a people problem.
~Gerald M. Weinberg
Following this advice, you shouldn’t look at things; you should look at people, their characters, behaviors and interactions. That’s where Gemba walk fails.
You can’t make meaningful observations in the meantime, while you walk around and ask about everyone’s wellbeing spending just a while here before going there and then coming back to your own stuff. You can’t make meaningful observations of team dynamics during a chat with everyone.
You have to be there. You have to breath the same air, share the same stories and see the same everyday routine. You have to become familiar and friendly enough that they stop playing. Or be there long enough so they get tired playing and become real.
It doesn’t happen in fifteen minutes. It takes days. Weeks maybe. On the other hand you may expect a few low hanging fruits, which you spot pretty quickly, e.g. the way people address themselves in a discussion. Either way it doesn’t happen when Mr. Leader enters a room for his whatever-he-calls-it thing. It happens when a leader becomes almost invisible, sitting there in a corner, minding their own business and using those occasional bursts of action to learn something about their team.
And this is why Gemba walk isn’t enough. It’s just scratching the surface hoping for luck.