The Real Place

Mar 10, 2024

The Real Place

At Adeptic Creative Labs, we’re continuously finding ways of making learning exciting for adult learners and practising “kaizen” to create awesome learning experiences.

A few months ago, we were asked to teach a class of 6th and 7th semester design students. It was a graded course on Product Evaluation and ways to build great products while applying principles of design and other tips from our experience. While co-creating the program, my colleague proposed we use the Gemba Walk technique. My first thought was “Why foist workplace concepts on students?” Could we actually teach this oh-so-practical factory-born concept to a bunch of classroom novices?

The devil is in the details, a phrase we’re all familiar with. Oftentimes, in workplaces, people lose sight of details that provide crucial information to improving processes. The Gemba Walk was developed at Toyota Motor Corporation and encouraged leaders to walk the floors where actual work of value is done. Gemba comes from the Japanese ‘gembutsu’ which means the ‘real thing’ or the ‘real place’. The Gemba Walk (or GW) was developed at Toyota Motor Corporation and encouraged leaders to walk the floors where actual work of value is done.

 The technique was meant to help people

  • See how an operation is done and try and find activities that were wasteful or taking too much time

  • Listen to people doing the work and ask questions with the intent to understand how work is done and identify problematic process areas

  • Be respectful by collaborating with people to find problem areas together,  focus on ways to improve the process and not point fingers at people.

This idea along with many other Lean and Six Sigma practices have been pioneered by Toyota within its famed Toyota Production System which intensely focuses on eliminating waste from any operation and improving processes continuously. 

The idea of a Gemba Walk has also been improvised and applied across many industries, apart from manufacturing. As a coach who has worked mainly with technology teams, a GW is something that I recommend for exactly the same reasons, described above. The insights that organisations derive from doing this exercise regularly are very valuable.

Teaching students this concept is something I wasn't completely convinced of, yet. I set this beast aside until the day before I had to present it. While the students worked on an assignment, I messaged my colleague who in the midst of myriad work calls replied, “I felt it would help them, but feel free to discard”. The power of reverse psychology kicked in. Improv was the driving spirit behind figuring it out. After all, in many product companies, where’s the real shop floor and machines? But there are processes and ways in which value is created. So it shouldn't be too hard to get our students to appreciate a Gemba Walk. Or, would they think “Gosh, more gyaan our way to get those credits!!

The group of 20 students was divided into 5 groups for the course. Each group was working on a different idea and were about to begin prototyping. The timing of the GW felt right. On D-day, I picked 5 students, one from each project, and asked them, “If this was the flagship product that your company was building, what could you do to 

  • Learn about how the product is built

  • Understand if there are problems building it

  • Find ways of building the best prototypes by discovering ways to

    • Improve the process of developing prototypes; and

    • Fix key issues early so the prototypes are good enough to demonstrate?

I also told them that they need to 

  • Go see or observe how prototypes are built 

  • Ask “why” questions about the process used, solutions and problems that a team faces while prototyping. Make notes about the problems they saw in the process or the way in which the prototype is built

  • Show respect by keeping the focus on the problem and not the person.

The other 15 were not told anything. This was a semi-planned, just-in-time GW. The chosen famous 5 were explained what the GW is and what they needed to do, in about 10 minutes with 5 minutes for Q&A. The 5 had 90 minutes to do their job, across the 5 projects and take notes to provide insights to each project on areas of improvement . Off they went.

Since the other 15 didn't really know anything about a GW yet, they got wild ideas in their minds, ranging from “Oh, these people are stealing ideas to get better grades” to “Does our instructor want to completely change our design??”, and passed strange looks my way.

It was a delightful experience watching the (in)famous 5 do the GW. I noticed how difficult it was for them to stay with only asking questions. Pretty soon, solutions were being judged with “Oh! You could have done this” or “How come you missed that?”. Opinions were flying all over the place and they were talking over each other. The 5 eventually got the job done amidst the din,! I am thrilled to say they found at least 2 valuable suggestions for each of the 5 groups to improve their prototypes.

I quickly explained the concept to the remaining 15 and was glad to see “Aaha” expressions on their faces, replacing the sceptical looks. The 5 shared their findings and their insights were well received by their peers. I added a few nuggets from the Toyota Production System which left them quite awed and with a new appreciation for the practical uses of a Gemba Walk. Phew!!

 The students soon shared numerous ways in which they could apply the concepts. One student said she’d start doing a GW at home so she could respectfully suggest improvements to her parents' ways of parenting. Good luck with that my girl! 

What I took away from my observation of this experiment is not very different from what we as adults often do, particularly at the workplace. When we are trying to find better ways and improve on what we do, even though we mean well, we often

  • Jump to conclusions

  • We absolutely love giving answers

  • Don't actively listen to people doing the real work, but work out our responses in our minds

  • And, completely miss noticing the process, which is really what contributes to creating value. 

Good lessons for me I say, and I hope for our readers too.

Many assumptions and scepticisms about doing this exercise for students were pleasantly dispelled. A true Lean practitioner may balk at how it was done. But I felt I left the students with something useful and definitely took away a lot in return. At Adeptic, we are all about experiments and creating great experiences. We did just that!

Practitioners of Lean principles and 6-sigma and readers familiar with them… I’d absolutely love to hear what you think about this experiment. 

My sources of inspiration:,tour%20of%20the%20shop%20floor