Going to the Gemba in Software and Product Development

By Robin Morrison, Head of Agile Solutions

It is often said that software development and knowledge work is invisible work.

But as a leader, if you do not see it — how can you improve it? “Going to the Gemba” is one method.

As an agile solutions consultant, I help solve problems in technology-focused companies by looking for ways process change can positively impact an organization and its people. I have the privilege of working with clients in multiple industries, across the globe. I use both Agile and Lean techniques when I work with technology leaders to improve the quality and speed of their software development life cycle (SDLC), and often utilize Gemba Walks to provide targeted recommendations.

There is a wealth of information about how to conduct a Gemba Walk in manufacturing, but comparatively little is published about how to do one in the software industry. At Kenzan, we have developed techniques to help ‘see’ the invisible work in technology enterprises, and I will share some guidance here for you to leverage.

Gemba is a Japanese word for the “real place” — the place where the value-creating work actually occurs. To understand the issues that affect a process, it is critical to go to the gemba and see what is actually happening. James Womack provides inspiring and detailed guidance on this important management method in his book Gemba Walks. Taiichi Ohno, who is considered to be the father of the Toyota Production System is credited with originating the technique and his quote epitomizes the methodology: “Go see, Ask why, Show respect.”

When ‘outside’ people who don’t live in the process — including managers who don’t do the day-to-day work — intentionally and directly study a work environment, they can often start to ‘see’ the causes for performance problems that would otherwise go unnoticed.

In a Gemba Walk, leaders visit the work area to glean first-hand knowledge regarding:

• How products are built

• How services are provided

• Current challenges

• Opportunities for improvement

The goal of a Gemba Walk is to examine the current state of a particular process by observing it, in action, where it occurs. This aim is narrow, focused, and very specific, yet its purpose is to enable leaders to have a holistic view on how to create improvements across the full value stream. You will be trying to uncover how valuable, available, adequate, flexible, and waste-free each process is, and whether value flows smoothly from one step to the next.

Robin building an end-to-end map of a client’s value stream before walking the Gemba

We recommend that you outline a high-level blueprint of the value stream from customer request to the delivery of value. Identify the manager for each area to work with in order to identify and select employees who perform the work in each area to observe.

When scheduling, try to schedule the Gemba Walks in the order of the value stream OR the backwards order of the value stream. It is not as impactful to do the visits out of order or alone. Your goal should be to optimize the full value stream.

The Gemba should be viewed in the actual work environment. For example — if people enter forms, observe them entering forms; if they are coding, observe them developing; if key meetings take place, observe their meetings. Unlike a manufacturing line this means your Gemba Walk sessions may need to take place over several days as opposed to all in one day.

Who should attend the Gemba? In addition to you (or consultants such as Kenzan), other managers who are in the value stream may wish to attend the Gemba Walk. Ideally it is important for the leadership team of a value stream to know the work well. In traditional manufacturing value streams it made sense for the full management team to walk down the manufacturing line. However, in knowledge work, it can be very disconcerting for the employees to have a large group of people observing a person or a team. Therefore, we recommend no more than three people participate.

You will ask in-depth questions about the process being observed to get a high-level understanding of what is being done to transform an input into an output. At Kenzan, we prepare specific questions designed to gain insight into the problem we are being asked to help resolve.

If you are doing your Gemba Walk remotely, be sure to identify a VC tool that will enable the person you are observing to be able to see your face clearly and prepare the participant that you will be asking him or her to screen-share during your session. Remote Gemba Walks can be very effective if they are prepared adequately in advance. One example that we experienced was when we conducted a remote Gemba with a software engineer. We prepared him in advance that we would want to see his entire work screen so that he would not be caught off guard. As a result, we could see the engineer was interrupted multiple times by numerous people with messages sent in all capital letters through a messaging app that stated an urgent issue needed to be addressed immediately. The multiple interruptions made him unable to focus on addressing the actual issue. We also observed that the tracking for all work was in his email, not through a ticketing tool, so he had to sort through lengthy emails for the needed documentation and history. We respectfully paused our Gemba so that he was not distracted by us. The point is that these observations would not have been noticed remotely if we were only talking to the person about his work. (All the types of wastes noticed during this short observation are for another post).

Preparing for going to the Gemba:

  • Ensure communication has been provided to employees, most likely through their managers about your plan. It is important employees understand the objective and the spirit of the visit.
  • Prepare the questions you will want to ask and a format for taking notes.
  • As a pair or triad — establish roles: who will ask questions and take notes, will you alternate asking questions, will one person lead, etc.
  • If there are significant time zone challenges, respect the employee’s time zone over your own.
  • Ensure your mindset is to observe and study, not to provide suggestions and demonstrate your knowledge. You are seeking their knowledge. Be humble.
  • Read and study all notes, details and documents about the Gemba process you are visiting before you arrive.
  • If you are going in person, you will likely end up sitting in people’s cubicles. Limit the items you plan to bring so that you do not overwhelm the person’s personal work space.

Plan to take notes manually so that you do not have a computer barrier between you and the person you are interviewing and observing. If you are in a remote meeting this will help you be able to focus on the employee’s face and maintain eye contact. People will warm up more easily when you are listening and asking follow-up questions as opposed sitting behind a computer monitor or looking away and typing loudly. Err on the side of listening rather than capturing detailed notes. If you feel that the rapport is ok, it may be absolutely fine for one of you to take notes on your computer to be faster/more complete and still have the people you are visiting be open and honest with you. However, plan on not taking notes on your computer and build in time to write detailed notes after the meeting when your mind is fresh.

When you open the Gemba session, introduce yourself and why you are there. Remember that this is a very awkward experience for most people. Do everything you can to make this as natural as possible. Work hard to be friendly, establish rapport, and build trust. Be empathetic. Explain why you are there and the goals and benefits you are hoping to be able to support (without making any promises). People may be worried you are judging them or evaluating the importance of their job — so by exuding the intent of the Gemba Walk is to understand the full system and how it operates holistically — not evaluating any one person’s performance — you will put them at ease and enjoy the benefits of gaining deep insights that will help you improve the way work is done at your company.

Robin Morrison, Head of Agile Solutions

My goal is to be a thoughtful, fearless leader that disrupts non-value producing activities and recreates a system focused on creating value.

I have a pragmatic and joyful approach to:

  • Rapidly redesign the way work is done to create the most value for the customer.
  • Solve big problems by looking at the way process change can be impactful to an organization and its people
  • Redesign the framework companies use to revolutionize their business

As a leader of my team, I provide clarity of purpose, and continual coaching and skill growth so that my team is professionally challenged and supported so they can make an impact.

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