Taking a Proper Gemba Walk

Last weekend, I attended a college recruitment fair.  More than 1,000 students walked through the booths of over 200 colleges from across the country speaking to college recruiters, picking up pamphlets, and filling out forms for future mailing lists.  Someone likened the process to “speed dating” in that parents and students try to narrow down this enormous number of colleges to a manageable size based on majors, activities, demographics, location, and other data variables.  After that, no conversation at a booth is going to seal the deal.  At that point, you have to actually go to the college.  You have to walk the campus, walk throughout the community, and walk into the dorms, and walk into some classes.  For something as important as the choice of where someone will spend the next four years of their life, they have to physically walk around.

While things might look appealing behind a desk, taking a walk determines the reality.

There’s a Japanese phrase detectives use – “taking a Gemba walk”.  Gemba is a word that means the “real place”, and a “gemba walk” is a chance to walk the crime scene.  The actual place something occurs.  For architects, a gemba walk would be walking away from the desk and blueprints and going to the actual job site for first-hand knowledge.  For corporate managers, it would be walking the production floor.  For school leaders, it is walking around the building, classrooms, and community.

School leaders know the importance of conducting walk-arounds and see the benefits in being visible in the school and community.  But, many leaders have not established the proper purpose, environment, and steps in implementing real walk arounds.

Here are 5 Strategies In “Taking a Proper Gemba Walk”:

  1. Let Others Know Why You Are There.  Introduce yourself and explain why you are there – to observe and gather feedback on how you can help make things better for them.  While some may assume good intentions, others may not.  If it’s not clear, people will be anxious and mistrust can be built.  Share at a staff meeting or an email that you will be doing it, and that it’s your chance to see how things are functioning so you can make it better.
  2. Spend Time.  In observing what really happens, you have to invest time.  Make frequent visits and stay for a while.  The goal is to blend in, so you can observe “business as usual”.  I remember going in to the woods to spot deer.  They don’t come out right away; not until you blend in and are quiet.  That’s when the magic happens.
  3. Lead with Questions.  Like a detective, lead with questions.  Don’t fall in to a trap of making assumptions.  Find ways to look below the surface at a practice or why something is done.  A few great question to constantly ask yourself:
    1. Why they do what they do, and why do they do it that way?
    2. What is the goal in what they are trying to accomplish?
    3. What is preventing them from doing the real work?
    4. How can I help?
  4. Involve Others.  The worst thing to do is ask no questions, make no comments, and provide no feedback.  Realize that your presence will make others uneasy and create questions.  Instead, talk with others throughout the walk, without disrupting the environment, and provide feedback.
  5. Fight the Urge.  Fight the urge to fix things on the spot. If it is dangerous, by all means address it.  But, consider this as an opportunity for you to be transparent, build trust, and observe.  The goal is to find system needs; not play gotcha.  If you are perceived as looking only for problems, trust will be lost and a false community will be built.

As a final note, approach your Gemba Walk as an opportunity to learn and be a more informed, effective leader.  Don’t just walk through to check a box or make a quota.  Don’t treat this like a walk-by or walk around. Have a defined plan and list of “look-fors”.  Use it as an opportunity to model behavior by picking up trash, greeting students and staff, and smiling.  So, as you plan your goal of being out more, consider the strategies necessary for taking a proper gemba walk!

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