In 2019 no one in manufacturing could have predicted the U.S. would go from 3.5% unemployment in February 2020 to more than 30 million people claiming unemployment since March. Yet amid the 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. So rising wages and talent wars, especially the fight to retain their most valuable people, continue. The need to retain your most experienced workers is still a top priority, especially if your new hires are inexperienced and require extensive training.

Instituting the Gemba Walk

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 is the key here, as you don’t want to create a “big brother is always watching” perception that could hurt employee morale.

2. Tap leaders and set ground rules. Gemba walks work best in teams. The key functional areas that should be represented include supply chain, engineering, maintenance, operations, human resources, and safety. Explain that gemba walks are not optional and that the team walks together.

3. Plan your route. Start at the end of the value stream and work your way up. You might uncover a problem downstream at a secondary operation, but the most effective corrective action might need to occur upstream. When you reach that upstream process, you can address the problem.

4. Vary the route and the time of day. When you vary your route and time, you’ll see more processes and be able to talk 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 workstation to record discovered problems, including what the issue is, when it occurred, and who should be involved to develop corrective action. Review problems, but do not try to solve them during the gemba. The team should spend no more than five minutes at each station.

One of the best tools to use for gemba walk metrics is something called an MDI board. MDI stands for managing for daily improvement, but you can certainly put your own spin on it and call it whatever you’d like. Color-coded for clarity, an MDI board consists of one column dedicated to the issue being addressed next to adjacent columns dedicated to topics like safety, quality, delivery, and cost. A final column could have your hour-by-hour tracker for production if needed, or you could post announcements or other company information.

During their walk, the gemba team stands around the MDI board and the area leader summarizes the metrics—quickly. In fact, some of the best MDI boards abide by the five by five rule: Standing 5 ft. away from the board, you should know whether you’re winning or losing within 5 seconds. That’s it. There’s no need for someone to spend hours on detailed pie charts or other graphics that nobody will look at.

6. Follow up. Nothing derails employee engagement and the flow of ideas faster than a lack of follow-up. Follow up every idea, even if it’s something you don’t wish to pursue. Employees will respect that and potentially devise an even better solution. In some cases, an employee might have an idea that’s quick to implement and will help improve the area immediately. In those cases, empower your employees to “just do it.” If you want to see employees engaged, give them the chance to carry out their own ideas for improvement.

7. Adjust as necessary. The frequency, the routes, the times—these will all change the more gemba walks you do and the more you understand where the issues are. In most cases, there’s no need to change your gemba walk every week, but it shouldn’t stay the same forever either. The gemba walk should evolve with your operation. You may begin by stopping at your largest bottleneck station every day. As your team makes and sustains improvements, your bottleneck will move. At that point you might stop at the original bottleneck area only three times per week. Communicate the new route and schedule, but don’t go overboard on how often they change.