"Gemba Walks" can help enhance productivity and efficiency at the workplace. But what exactly are they and what regulations have to be taken into account?
Definition and content
The concept of the "Gemba Walk" was developed by the founder of Toyota Production Systems, Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990), to achieve continuous improvement in work processes.
The term derives from the Japanese word "Gemba(現場)", which can be translated as "place of action", "true place" or "real place". The term "place" is to be understood literally here – in concrete terms, managers are supposed to conduct regular workplace rounds at the place that is central to value creation in order to gather impressions, exchange ideas and ask about improvement options there with the aim of increasing productivity in the company in the long term. It should be emphasised that the aim is not to assess the performance of individual employees, but to objectively record the system steps.
In addition to the "traditional" Gemba Walk, which is generally for examining organisational structures, it is also possible to conduct a "Safety Gemba Walk". This Gemba method focuses on continuously improving safety at work (see below).
Gemba Walks and occupational safety
Gemba Walks can play a key role in ensuring occupational health and safety. The primary basis for this is section 618 (1) German Civil Code (BGB), which states that the person entitled to services (the employer) must furnish and maintain premises, devices or equipment that he must provide for performance of the services in such a way that the person obliged to perform services (the employee) is protected against danger to life and limb.
The German Occupational Health and Safety Act (ArbSchG) and German Act on Occupational Physicians, Safety Engineers and Other Occupational Safety Specialists (ASiG), which form the legal basis for occupational health and safety, must also be observed. Section 3 (1) ArbSchG regulates the employer's basic obligations in this respect and stipulates that he must take the necessary measures of occupational safety and health, taking account of the circumstances, to influence the safety and health of employees at work. Furthermore, the employer must review the measures for their effectiveness and adjust them afterwards if necessary. The aim is to improve the safety and health protection of employees. The following are therefore set out as key points in the German Occupational Health and Safety Act:
- commitment to effective health and safety protection,
- a continuous improvement process and
- related organisational and documentation obligations.
The key aspect of the workplace protection concept according to the German Occupational Health and Safety Act is the risk assessment, meaning the determination and evaluation of possible health hazards at the workplace (section 5 ArbSchG). The results obtained serve as a basis for determining the measures required to ensure occupational health and safety.
"Safety Gemba Walk" as a tool for continuous improvement of safety
Safety rounds, audits and inspections are an essential part of the safety management of every company. The focus of traditional safety rounds is usually on checking compliance with existing rules. Considerations such as how existing procedures and processes can be made more effective or more pleasant are usually only of secondary importance.
This is where a Safety Gemba Walk comes in, with the aim of not only maintaining a company's safety, but also improving it. This aligns with the guiding principle, as also provided for in section 3 (1) s. 3 ArbSchG which states that the employer must strive specifically to improve health and safety. And for this, it can be crucial to gather information as to where the work takes place. The experience gained on site (e.g. in the workshop) replaces theoretical assumptions and enables concrete decisions to be made, starting points for optimisation measures to be created and causes for problems to be revealed. From this perspective, the Safety Gemba Walk can be seen as an important component of safety management. Interacting with the employees on site is crucial in order to benefit from their knowledge of the work processes and possibilities for improvement.
In addition, as an employer, there is the social aspect, which should not be underestimated, and the associated focus on increased productivity for each individual in the company. Employees can be encouraged by the Gemba Walk to get actively involved in optimising process design by making suggestions. Interacting with employees regarding their views and their thoughts on safety at work is therefore key.
Safety Gemba Walks can thus help employers carry out their statutory duties to protect, complementing traditional safety rounds in particular. The advantages of this workplace round are clear:
- makes targeted safety improvement possible;
- enables dialogue with employees;
- employees appreciate the opportunity to contribute;
- emphasises that management takes its duty of care seriously.
Gemba Walks and co-determination rights
If there is a works council in a plant where Gemba Walks are to be conducted, the following co-determination rights in particular must be observed:
- If the Gemba Walks are to be carried out using a digital checklist tool, which provides information on which an employee has carried out how many Gemba Walks and/or on whether he or she has fully completed the checklists, the works council has a right of co-determination under section 87 (1) no. 6 German Works Constitution Act (BetrVG).
- If "Safety Gemba Walks" are used, which are aimed at improving workplace safety, meaning in particular at obtaining information in order to take optimisation measures, the employer thereby fulfils, among others, his obligation under section 3 (1) ArbSchG, which states that the employer has a duty to take the necessary measures of occupational safety and health. This provision gives the employer sufficient discretion due to the vague legal term "necessary measures" and therefore establishes (further) co-determination rights of the works council.
Added Value of Gemba Walks
The use of Gemba walks not only helps optimise value chains in the company but can also make an important contribution with regard to showing employees appreciation and safeguarding the employer's duty of care in the workplace.