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3 Huge Mistakes to Avoid When Planning & Conducting Process Walks -

What Is a Process Walk?

Process Walks are also known as “Going to Gemba.” Gemba is a Japanese term that translates to “go to the real place.” A Process Walk means an improvement team physically walks the whole process together while conducting interviews with those that work in the process.

Instead of having process discussions in a conference room, the team goes to where the work is performed. Even if that work is performed in cubicles, the team will go see the process and the work. The rule is that teams follow the “thing” that moves through the process, whether the “thing” is an application, a work order or a product.

Why Do a Process Walk?

Here are a few reasons why.

Process Walks:

  1. Build profound knowledge of the current state of the process
  2. Help build understanding of the whole process versus just pieces of the process
  3. Help employees see the waste in the process

Build Profound Knowledge of the Current State of the Process

In order to improve a process it is important to understand what the current process really is, versus what we think it is. Too often, people make process changes without really knowing the current state of the process. This can result in a lot of disruption for process workers without actually resolving any issues.

In order to improve a process it is important to understand what the current process really is, versus what we think it is.

Understand the Whole Process Versus Just Pieces of the Process

When we engage with a client and plan a Process Walk, we almost always discover that the process has never been walked before. It is truly amazing how often workers are exposed to just their piece of the process. Co-workers that share a process may go for years, decades, or forever, without seeing what their upstream or downstream co-workers do.

We sometimes hear participants say, “I’ve worked here for 10 years and I’ve always wondered what they do. I can’t wait to see.” Imagine how much redundancy and re-work exists in processes because workers never get an opportunity to see the whole process.

Help Employees See Waste in the Process

One of the biggest challenges in process improvement is when employees don’t see waste and therefore feel no need to eliminate it. Some employees work for years dealing with waste or unnecessary steps in a process but they are desensitized to it. They don’t see it. If workers don’t see waste how can they eliminate it? Process Walks help employees strengthen their ability to see waste.

So, now that you understand what Process Walks are and the importance of doing them, let’s discuss the three biggest mistakes people make when conducting Process Walks.

Huge Mistake #1: Not Doing a Process Walk

“Can’t we just meet in the conference room?” No. Here are a few reasons why. Some believe that conducting a Process Walk for an administrative or transactional process doesn’t add value. “We’ll just be standing in somebody’s cubicle. There’s no process to see.” This is exactly why you should do a Process Walk.

Most administrative processes are invisible! Just look across the office. All we see are people in cubicles. Do you see a process? No. How can workers improve a process if they can’t see it? A Process Walk should always be a precursor to creating a detailed map.

Hearing about a process second-hand is no substitute for seeing the process. There is no telling how many “Ahas” or discoveries might come from process observation. Remember, employees are often de-sensitized to waste. You may interview a process worker that is drowning in piles of work-in-process (WIP) in their cubicle. However, if the process has been operating like that for years, the employee is probably used to it and they’ll tell you, ”Everything’s just fine!” Observing the work space can help employees ask better questions, which in turn will prompt more discoveries.


Photo by Provenza Luigi, “How To Eliminate Clutter”

Huge Mistake #2: Poor Planning

There are many steps to planning a successful Process Walk. Some of the biggest planning mistakes are:

  • Not involving the right people
  • Not informing the right people early enough

Not Involving the Right People

A common planning mistake is having the facilitator walk the process without including the folks that work in the process. When the facilitator walks the process, maps the process, finds the problems and then recommends solutions all by themselves, they’re often surprised when those that work in the process don’t embrace the recommended changes. Don’t make the mistake of doing process improvement to people. Process improvement works best when done with people. Involve the people that work in the process from the start. Don’t attempt to improve the process without them.

Usually, a facilitator is not someone who works in the process. If this is the case, how would the facilitator know what to change by walking the process once? How likely will improvement stick if those that work in the process are excluded from improving the process? The purpose of the walk is to help those that work in the process discover the waste, redundancy and unnecessary steps.

I liken this approach to having your friend tell you about a movie they saw instead of going to see the movie yourself.

I liken this approach to having your friend tell you about a movie they saw instead of going to see the movie yourself. Your friend’s description of the movie pales in comparison to watching the movie in person, so why would we expect that telling process workers about the process will have the same impact as seeing it for themselves?

Process Walk - Movie -

Another planning mistake is failing to include the interviewed process workers in the rest of the Process Walk. Those who work in the process need to see the current state of the process if they are going to participate in improving it. Here is how process workers should be involved: When the walk gets to a worker’s step in the process, that worker becomes the interviewee and sits down to explain that step in the process. Once the interview is completed, the worker transitions back into walking the rest of the process. Just interviewing the people in the process, but not involving them in other steps does not count as involvement.

Those who work in the process need to see the current state of the process if they are going to participate in improving it.

Another planning mistake is trying to “divide and conquer” – breaking up the team and having them observe different parts of the process simultaneously. One of the most common questions is, “Wouldn’t splitting the team up for the Process Walk interviews be more efficient?” Yes, it would be more efficient and terribly ineffective. Remember the analogy of the movie? Would the experience be the same if you only saw one part of the movie and your co-workers only saw the other parts of the movie? Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

Process Walk - Surprise -

People need to see the process together. This creates a shared understanding about the current state of the process, the opportunities and discoveries.

Not Informing People Soon Enough

The last planning mistake I’ll share is not giving Process Walk participants advance notice. What happens instead is that suddenly there are ten people standing around a cubicle, and the worker is being asked, “Can you tell us how you do your work?” This poor soul had no preparation or notice. This is not a respectful way to conduct a Process Walk. Since this can be damaging, we recommend a mandatory orientation session prior to the Process Walk so participants are well prepared.

Huge Mistake #3: Not Enforcing the Ground Rules

Ground Rules insure that everyone understands how to behave while conducting a Process Walk. Most of the ground rules listed below are selected to encourage a safe, blame-free environment to promote learning and process focus. Here are some typical Ground Rules for Process Walks:

  1. It’s about the process, not the people
  2. Be respectful of all parties involved
  3. Be a student of the process
  4. Be empathetic; Process workers are the biggest victims of poor process design
  5. Stay engaged and seek to learn
  6. Rank has no privilege
  7. Finger-pointing has no place
  8. Do not correct interviewees during the walk

Sadly, Process Walks go side-ways because a facilitator doesn’t enforce ground rules. Process Walks that become “gotcha” opportunities where interviewees don’t feel safe or supervisors publicly shame workers can create a downward spiral of fear and blame.

A facilitator has to be ready to:

  1. Remind walkers of the ground rules when they break or test them.
  2. Have a side conversation with someone if they continue to break the rules or ignore the reminders.
  3. Remove individuals from the walk if they cannot follow the ground rules.

Ultimately, a Process Walk should be a positive, eye-opening, learning experience that employees want to repeat.

If you avoid these mistakes when planning and conducting a Process Walk, you will be pleasantly surprised at how effective Process Walks can be in creating empathy, building team collaboration and encouraging a shared desire to fix the process.

Ultimately, a Process Walk should be a positive, eye-opening, learning experience that employees want to repeat.

Have you ever been a part of a Process Walk that didn’t end up going well? How would you have improved it?

Tracy O'Rourke

Tracy is a Managing Partner at, the co-author of The Problem-Solver’s Toolkit and co-host of the Just-in-Time Cafe. She is also a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt Instructor at UC San Diego and teaches in San Diego State University’s Lean Enterprise Program. For almost 20 years, she has helped leading organizations like Washington State, Charles Schwab and GE build problem-solving muscles.