While recently in America, I found myself flicking through television channels to come across an old favourite reality show of mine, Undercover Boss. First aired in the UK in 2009 by Channel 4, the UK show has since been cancelled but is seemingly still going strong in the USA. I was hooked once again.

For those that missed it, the show is a simple concept. As the name suggests, it sees big bosses don a disguise and go undercover as an entry-level employee to see what really happens on the frontline of their businesses. Essentially, it is a televised Gemba walk.

What is a Gemba walk?

Meaning ‘the real place’ in Japanese, the Gemba is the shop floor where the process takes place. So, a Gemba walk sees a senior member of staff go to the Gemba – the shop floor – to experience the process first-hand. Gemba walk.

The individual conducting the Gemba walk seeks to understand the process by both observing and doing the process, as well as talking to the individuals that operate the process day-to-day. The desired result of a Gemba walk is a greater understanding of the process, allowing company leaders to make informed and therefore effective improvements.

Effective and regular Gemba walks are proven to bridge gaps between the various levels of the organisation, resulting in a positive and collaborative environment in which the whole workforce is committed to continuous improvement.

Why Gemba walks make TV gold

While part of the appeal of the show is the anticipation as to whether or not the CEO will be identified underneath the bad wig and prosthetic nose, the golden moments are undoubtedly when the boss really begins to see the process from the employee’s perspective.

Along the way, the undercover bosses often come face-to-face with unhappy customers who have a lot to say, meet hard-working employees who feel undervalued, and they experience the frustrations of the company’s poor processes first-hand. It is these moments of realisation that really resonate with the masses – after all, who hasn’t been subject to a poor process and wished their boss could spend an hour or two in their shoes?

As with all good Gemba walks, the bosses come out the other side with a real understanding of the processes and a true appreciation of the people operating them. The bosses can then see what needs to be done to keep their processes efficient and their employees happy. Of course, as with all good reality television, some drama is added into the mix in the form of generous financial handouts and life-changing opportunities to ensure the viewers are left in tears and wanting more.

However, as these televised Gemba walks are primarily created for entertainment value as opposed to business improvement, some episodes can be held as cautionary examples of what not to do with Gemba walks.

Gemba walks gone wrong

Lacking the structure of a Lean Gemba walk and presumably with the added pressures of a production deadline, in many cases, the undercover bosses have ended the episode offering quick fixes or superficial solutions to the problems they’ve encountered.

Camera crew. For example, when Deputy MD and sister of Ann Summers Head, Vanessa Gold, went undercover in the Blackburn High Street store, the episode ended with the awarding of a holiday to Greece for a valued member of staff and some career opportunities for particularly talented team members. While viewers gained a warm fuzzy feeling from seeing such generosity, we were all left wondering whether the organisation ever found solutions to the issues that were causing staff to feel so undervalued in the first place.

What’s more, the common issue of modified behaviour when being monitored – also known as the Hawthorne effect – that notoriously plagues many a Gemba walk is undoubtedly heightened by the presence of glaring cameras. While the big boss’ disguise may have allowed them to go undetected, the knowledge of the nationwide audience must modify the behaviour of most featured employees to some extent. This consequently brings into question whether or not the true processes are really being shown and, therefore, whether or not the solutions will be effective.

Learning to Gemba walk

Although the show might not get the Gemba walk right every time, it does highlight the importance of bridging the gap between senior members of staff and the shop floor to identify improvements.  As Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plough is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the cornfield.”

Just like a Gemba walk, it is always the undercover bosses with a genuine desire to improve and an ability to connect with their employees that gain the most from the experience. So, if you are planning on performing a Gemba walk then there is no need to worry about hiring an expensive makeup artist or coming up with an alias. Simply be sure to enter the process with an open mind, a willingness to learn and, most importantly, invest time in gaining the trust of your employees.

Want to learn more about conducting a successful Gemba walk? Gemba walks are just one of the many Lean tools you can learn in our online Lean Practitioner training course. Click the button below to explore this comprehensive Lean course.

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