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Stress Awareness Month – How Walking the Gemba Can Reduce Workplace Stress.

April is Stress Awareness Month and Pacific are exploring the huge effect that stress can have on both companies and individuals and how Walking the Gemba can help to overcome this. The following statistics display its prevalence and subsequent effects:

             - In the US, 72% of employees who suffer from stress say that it interferes at least moderately with                     their lives[1].
             - In the UK alone, there are on average 13.5 million sick days taken due to stress per year and an                         estimated cost of £4 billion to the economy[2].
             - In the Global Benefits Attitudes survey by Willis Towers Watson, it was found that employees who                     claimed to be experiencing high levels of stress, 57% of these also reported that they were                                 disengaged. This is contrasted by just 10% of disengagement in employees claiming low stress                           levels[3].

The impact of stress on the individual and their productivity in the workplace can have a major effect on the performance of a company as a whole. So from an economic and social perspective, workplace stress is extremely costly. One way to tackle this is for management to engage with employees at all levels, understand their pain points and take active steps to alleviate these on a continuous basis. This can be achieved through using a methodology of Lean called Walking the Gemba.

Gemba is derived from the Japanese term meaning ‘the actual place’, referring to the most crucial location where your company operates - in the manufacturing industry this would be on the factory floor. Therefore Walking the Gemba is a methodology whereby the management walks around the area of where the work is carried out (not to be confused with the methodology of MBWA – Management By Walking Around[4]), engaging in an open and honest manner with employees, to gain an insight on how the organisation and process can function in a more effective way and taking steps to implement these findings. Toyota, an advocate for the use of Gemba, emphasises that it is a tool used to reinforce Kaizen, a philosophy of continuous improvement[5], key to decreasing waste and maximising efficiency. A successful Gemba walk is therefore accomplished through regular, direct involvement. When upper management sets the example, durable Lean success and an increasingly Lean leadership mindset follows[6]. 

The aim of Walking the Gemba is not just to reduce workplace stress and its main intention is to focus on a process as a whole and how it can be improved to prevent issues[7]. The key to a successful Gemba walk is to look at the process and not the people in terms of what you are observing and evaluating. It is not a finger pointing exercise or an opportunity to micromanage. Through speaking with people and understanding how the process can be made better for them and engaging with their thoughts and ideas, employees will feel more valued and supported, see real change based on their suggestions, feel less stressed and therefore be more engaged and productive.

In order to ensure that Gemba is efficiently used, it is helpful to understand some methodologies to practically use. An example of three areas to consider when embarking on a Gemba walk are known as the 3 M’s – Muda which refers to waste, Mura which refers to unevenness and Muri which refers to efforts that cause strain[8]. Illustrating the three M’s through an example related to workplace stress will show how it can be reduced and productivity can be increased. An employee might be stressed if their work day is unbalanced or uneven (referring to Mura) in the amount of tasks that they have to do at one time – if they have a high workload in the morning, but not in the afternoon[9]. An open, non-critical discussion between the employee and management whilst on a Gemba walk would highlight this discrepancy and it would reveal issues in the process leading to changes to make the workload more even. This would mean that the employee is not as stressed at one point in their working day. Mura can lead to Muda, which is excess waste, so following the example, this could be a waste in terms of the employees time when the work fluctuates and there isn’t anything to do. Obviously, this is not an effective use of the employees time and will mean that they are not productive for part of their day, in turn affecting business. Finally, Muri can be seen as the process being inefficient. The employee is overworked for part of their day, which will lead to strain. Maybe this will be shown through an accident in the workplace but this could also result in workplace stress leading to unproductivity and ineffectiveness. You can apply the three M’s to show how Walking the Gemba can highlight these issues and the effects that they have on employees. When the management can identify the cause of the stress whilst Walking the Gemba and act upon their findings to improve the process to make the workload more balanced and even, all areas of the three M’s will improve. This is just one example of how Walking the Gemba can impact on both the stress levels of the individual and the effectiveness of the overall process.

The aim of a Gemba walk is to provide an opportunity for dialogue, to build a culture of continuous improvement at all levels, and to break down barriers in terms of management and employees in an open fashion. One result of these conversations will be to hear and identify why an employee is feeling stressed and tackle these issues. McKinsey and Co believes that management taking an interest in their employees and making them feel cared for and valued will have the largest impact on their wellness[10].  Management should be aiming to improve efficiency and reduce waste and tackling workplace stress is one area to consider in order to achieve this.

We would love to hear your thoughts on Walking the Gemba and workplace stress. Please feel free to connect with Isobel on LinkedIn and share your experiences and input with us.

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Bibliography and Further Reading

1. ADAA. (2018). Highlights: Workplace Stress and Anxiety Disorders Survey. Retrieved from Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/workplace-stress-anxiety-disorders-survey

2. Health and Safety Executive. (2009). How to Tackle Work-Related Stress. Sudbury: HSE.

3. Kilduff, J. (2014, September 3). Workplace Stress Leads to Less Productive Employees. Retrieved from Willis Towers Watson: https://www.towerswatson.com/en-GB/Press/2014/09/Workplace-stress-leads-to-less-productive-employees

4. Roussel, J. (2015, July 23). The Difference Between a Gemba Walk and Management by Walking Around . Retrieved from KaiNexus: Everything Continuous Improvement: https://blog.kainexus.com/improvement-disciplines/lean/gemba-walk/the-difference-between-gemba-walks-and-management-by-walking-around

5. Toyota. (2013, May 31). Genba - Toyota Production System Guide. Retrieved from Toyota: https://blog.toyota.co.uk/genba-toyota-production-system

6. Mann, D. (2009). The Missing Link: Lean Leadership. Frontiers of Health Services Management, Vol 26, 1.

7. Tervene. (n.d.). A Simple Guide to a Gemba Walk. Retrieved from Tervene : http://tervene.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/A-simple-guide-to-Gemba-Walk-ebook.pdf

8. Womack, J. (2006, June 7). Mura, Muri, Muda? Boston: Lean Enterprise Institute. Retrieved from Lean Enterprise Institute: https://www.lean.org/womack/DisplayObject.cfm?o=743

9. CSS. (2016, June 28). What is Gemba? Retrieved from Creative Safety Supply: https://www.creativesafetysupply.com/articles/gemba/

10. Chapman, B. (2017). Wellness at Work: The Promise and Pitfalls. McKinsey Quarterly, 1.

11. Forth. (2018, February 4). Great Britain and Stress - How Bad Is It? Retrieved from Forth With Life: https://www.forthwithlife.co.uk/blog/great-britain-and-stress/

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