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The Gemba Walk: a tried and true strategy for improving employee retention

Aug 01, 2021

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, no one could have predicted the U.S. would go from a nationwide 3.5% unemployment rate in February of 2020 to 30 million people claiming unemployment the very next month. Manufacturers certainly had gotten used to rising wages and talent wars, especially the fight to retain their most valuable people.

Yet amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the reality of recruitment and retention struggles in manufacturing hasn’t changed too drastically. Manufacturing demand is still high, and manufacturers are still hiring.

We already covered how there’s a huge opportunity to recruit new workers into manufacturing in the form of entertainment and hospitality workers and provide them with the training they need to get up and running quickly.

At the same time, manufacturers should focus on retaining employees who do have significant manufacturing knowledge and experience — especially if you do plan on hiring inexperienced workers.

The Gemba Walk

One of the most important employee retention strategies that has stood the test of time is the Gemba Walk.

Gemba is a Japanese term that simply means “the actual place” and has been loosely translated to mean “where the value is created” in manufacturing. Gemba Walks are structured walks through the plant, with stops along the value stream to observe the process. 

Gemba Walks became a regular facet of the Lean Production System sometime in the mid-1900s. Their purpose was to have leadership members get out on the production floor where the value was being created and observe the process (but not the people). Think of the 1980s’ “management by wandering around” era, but instead of asking leaders to randomly meander throughout the plant, Gemba Walks have more structure, problem-solving and employee engagement elements, which in turn lead to a culture of continuous improvement and employee satisfaction.

How Gemba Walks help reduce employee turnover

The Society for Human Resource Management — arguably the gold-standard association for surveys and trends related to employment issues — notes that having a bad manager has been consistently cited as one of the top three reasons people leave their jobs

Defining a “bad manager” is a topic we could devote hours to covering, but since we’re focusing on Gemba Walks right now, let’s highlight some of the traits of successful managers. They typically have:

  • The ability to build relationships with employees at every level of the organization.
  • Positive visibility throughout the organization.
  • The ability to detect problems as they occur and eliminate them quickly.
  • The ability to develop, mentor and coach others.

Conducting Gemba Walks helps a leader accomplish all these items and therefore reduce the perception that the leader is disengaged. However, it’s important to conduct Gemba Walks the right way. Right now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, safety and social distancing is a priority, and following recommendations can help ensure you can still conduct Gemba Walks safely.

Following the seven steps below will also help ensure you get the most out of the walks, including raising employee retention rates.

1. Prepare the production team for the change

Your team needs to understand that you’re out there to observe processes, not people. Communicating your true intention with the Gemba Walks is the key here, as you don’t want to create a “Big brother is always watching” perception that will have morale taking a hit.

2. Tap leaders and set ground rules

In Gemba Walks, the key functional areas that should be represented include supply chain, engineering, maintenance, operations and HR/safety. Explain that the Gemba Walks are not optional and that the team walks together.

3. Plan your route

It’s best to start at the end of the value stream and work your way up. That way, if you uncover a problem at a secondary operation, you can create it as an issue at the upstream process where it needs to be corrected.

4. Vary the route and the time of day

When you vary your route and time, you will have exposure to more processes and be able to have discussions with different operators.

5. Create metrics at each key area you’d like to address

Create no more than three or four metrics. Have something at the station to record a surfaced issue with the who/what/when status added. Review at each Gemba Walk, but do not try to solve the problems during the Gemba. Each station should be no more than five minutes.

6. Follow up

Nothing derails employee engagement and a flow of ideas faster than lack of follow up. Even if the idea is something you don’t wish to pursue, it’s still essential to follow up. The employees will respect that and potentially devise an even better solution.

7. Adjust as necessary

The frequency, the routes, the times — these will all change the more you do Gemba Walks and the more you understand where the issues are.

Changing employee perceptions

Ask yourself, “Would I rather work for a manager who incorporated these steps into their daily routine or a manager that I rarely see, unless I did something wrong?”.

Even if you don’t have a formal continuous improvement program or haven’t begun a Lean manufacturing journey, you can start doing Gemba Walks fairly easily. By following these seven steps, you can have a more inspired, engaged and challenged workforce that sees you on the floor helping them solve their problems. Companies that have that type of workforce see a much lower turnover rate, making Gemba Walks a great tool for employee retention.

Need more help with COVID-19 issues?

We’re here to help you navigate the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on your people, finances and business. Visit our COVID-19 resource center to learn about ideas and solutions that can help you manage your people strategy, operations, business finances and technology.

Need help creating employee retention strategies? Wipfli can assist. Contact us today.

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Joe Girard
Sr. Business Developer
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