A Look at Gemba Walks in the Distribution Center Environment

With the increasing availability of warehouse information in today’s distribution centers, it can seem like the answer is always in the data. However, when supervisors notice that productivity is beginning to decrease, the start of the solution might be as simple as getting out of the office and onto the warehouse floor.

Background and Methodology

In the ever-popular Lean environment, there is a component based off of the Japanese term “Gemba,” meaning “the real place”. A “Gemba walk” refers to physically observing where value exists in a system and looking for different opportunities to improve efficiency. Applying this principle to a distribution center setting involves supervisors physically walking the warehouse floor in search of current and potential waste, which degrades value-added processes. As simple of a concept as this may seem, it often can identify and solve problems more effectively than from behind a computer screen- especially in labor intensive processes.

Industry Example

In this scenario, a supervisor notices that the productivity for all loading associates has been decreasing over time. At first, he or she might jump to a conclusion that associates are not working at the required pace and may need to be disciplined. During a Gemba walk, he or she goes to the “real place” (the loading dock) and notices that the drop in productivity is not due to the loading associates’ pace and methods at all. Instead, the order selection associates have been staging pallets in multiple directions without consistency or standardized method. This in turn is causing the loaders to move and search for pallets all over the dock, therefore resulting in a decrease in loaded pallets per hour. Having seen this in practice, the supervisor sees where the problem is occurring and now has a lead to investigate further.

The Root of the Problem

A Gemba walk can help warehouse management discover where problems end up but more importantly can give them a lead to where more problems are present. The reason that the order selectors were staging pallets haphazardly on the dock could stem from additional root causes such as poor training, an increase in hiring of new selectors, available dock space, or an unbalanced workforce. Without physical observation by walking the warehouse floor with a critical eye, a supervisor may not be able to effectively address the slip in productivity.

Action before Reaction

The Gemba walk should become a standardized operating procedure (SOP) for supervisors. With this SOP in place, there is a greater opportunity to work proactively to discover potential problems before they affect productivity. During these walks, it is important to talk to the associates to help understand if there have been any noticeable changes to the work environment that affect productivity (defects, overproduction, waiting, non-value added activities, transportation, inventory, motion, and employee under-utilization). Also, the extra visibility will help gain trust and garner buy-in from the workforce. In summary, this methodology can help management truly understand how the current operation is running and can be an effective action plan to solving problems that are often hard to trace from behind a computer screen.

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