The Traditional Gemba Walk Has Low Value in Software Engineering

I was at the dare13 conference last week where we were talking during a lean coffee session about the Gemba Walk and its value in software engineering. The Gemba Walk is a Lean practice where executives regularly visit the factory floor with a Lean teacher, sensei, or coach, and learn about the flow by observation, and look for improvement opportunities (reducing waste). It is a very important practice in lean manufacturing, but during our lean coffee session we (Hakan Forss, Jon Terry, Ketil Jensen and me) concluded that the Gemba Walk in its original form doesn’t add much value to the software engineering process.

Think about the Gemba Walk, and try to walk the factory floor in your head. What do you see? You probably see how the workers are moving around (motion), where the parts are stored (inventory), and how the workers move them around (transportation). You can [easily] spot Muda (motion, inventory, transportation, etc) just by walking the factory floor. Now, try to do the same in an office full of software developers. There are only a couple of things you can see there. Either they are working, look like working, or are not working. That is not really informative. Moreover, the idea of Lean is new to most software developers, therefore they have no idea about the Gemba Walk either, and just the mere presence of you will make them stop working and start thinking “What is he doing here? Are we in trouble?”

One can argue that the Agile environment does solve this issue because there are planning meetings, daily standups, retrospective meetings, and boards. The executives can attend the mentioned meetings and can observe the boards, therefore they can make their observations like in the traditional Gemba Walk. That argument might be valid, but if you put yourself in the shoes of an executive who has to deal with accounting, customers, and other stuff, would you be able to get an idea about how a team is performing based on a 2 hour-long planning or a 15 minute-long daily discussion? Maybe you would, but you must admit that there is a difference between invisible, complex knowledge work and visible repeatable manufacturing work, and due to the invisibility and complexity one may need more time and effort to understand knowledge work. And that is something really hard to do, especially when one has other things on his plate.

Nevertheless, the “go and see” practice can be applied in the software industry too, but instead of going to the factory floor (the Gemba) the executives should go and see the product they are “paying for”. They can run the application take their excel sheets and see how much they’ve paid for the functionality they are seeing in the product. Moreover, they can use all the electronic tools available (CI reports, Scrum/Kanban boards etc) and see why it take that long or short to deliver that feature. This is how they are going to see what is going on, not by walking around the office.

I believe that it is important that executives or managers go and talk to the employees, but that is not a Gemba Walk. Unfortunately, the gap between managers and non-managers is getting bigger and bigger year by year, so a little socialising is actually a good thing to do: managers can learn more about the people who are building the products and a bit more about their problems, and the people can learn who is behind the “announcement emails” and more about what is happening in the world of managers (sales, visions, plans, etc). It is a simple get-to-know-you walk that is very valuable and yet has nothing to do with waste reduction. So let’s keep it that way, shall we?

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