Why Gemba is the Best Way to Solve Service Failures

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The CEO called me with an urgent training project.

Our parking management firm was in danger of losing an important contract at a hotel where we managed the valet and self-parking operation. The client was unhappy about poor service quality and gave us thirty days to improve.

The CEO told me to go to the hotel and train the staff and the manager. He wanted me to show them how to deliver service the right way, and then make sure they did it. This was going to be my priority for the next 30 days.

I decided to meet the parking manager and take a gemba walk. It was fortunate that I did, because it quickly became clear that training was not the problem.

A valet parking attendant is opening the car door for a guest.

What is a gemba walk?

A gemba walk involves going to where the work is done and observing it first-hand. It requires you to approach the situation with an open mind and ask questions to gain a better understanding of how people do the work and why they do it the way they do.

The term gemba (or genba) is a Japanese word that means "the actual place." It's a principle closely associated with lean manufacturing, but I've always found it to be a great way to diagnose service failures.

My gemba walk with the hotel parking manager was revealing.

Our client, the hotel's general manager, was unhappy because our valets frequently failed service audits conducted by mystery shoppers. These were auditors who posed as guests and evaluated the hotel on a comprehensive list of service measures. 

Graph showing actual mystery shopper audit score of 78% compared to a goal of 85%.

The mission was to find out why our valets were failing the audits.

I spent about an hour with the manager reviewing the valet operation. Unlike a mystery shopper, a gemba walk involves directly observing the work and talking to the people doing it.

  • We watched the valets serve guests.

  • I asked questions to learn about what they were doing and why.

  • We walked through the entire operation, include back-of-the-house areas.

This was just one shift, and the hotel was a 24/7 operation. I came back several times on nights and weekends to observe other valets in action and did another gemba walk with the supervisor who reported to the manager. 

We quickly discovered the root cause of the service issues.

What is the purpose of a gemba walk?

A gemba walk allows you to see insights that might otherwise be hidden. Leaders can be misled by data and easily jump to the wrong conclusions without seeing the full picture.

Remember the call from my CEO?

He had assumed the problem was training. Using this guide for diagnosing training issues, I knew that employees need training when they lack one of three things necessary to do their job:

  • Knowledge

  • Skill

  • Ability

The gemba walk with the parking manager quickly revealed the valets had the knowledge, skill, and ability to do their jobs. None of this was guesswork. 

  • I observed the valets providing excellent service to guests when the front drive was busy.

  • I observed them getting bored when the hotel's front drive was slow.

  • The valets told me exactly why they got bored and goofed off during slow times.

So it wasn't a training issue.

The problem was they didn't do the job consistently. The valets got bored when work was slow, lost focus, and started goofing off. They were also missing some critical information:

  • Mystery shopper reports weren’t shared with the team.

  • The valets didn’t realize the contract, and their jobs, were at risk.

I didn't have to suggest the solutions. The valets came up with some on their own, and the manager created a simple, but brilliant, plan to tie it all together.

When should you do a gemba walk?

A gemba walk is useful whenever you need to identify the root cause of a problem. There are a number of benefits to going directly to where the work is being done.

  • Test assumptions

  • Verify procedures are being followed (often, they aren't)

  • Talk to the people actually doing the work

Observing the work being done is one of the best quick fixes for solving performance challenges of any kind.

Throughout my career as a trainer, customer service manger, and a consultant, I've often seen gemba walks lead to very different conclusions than the initial diagnosis:

  • A "problem employee" was actually being victimized by a toxic coworker.

  • An incentive program designed to improve service made service worse.

  • A "short-staffed" team improved productivity by 25 percent without adding staff.

Gemba walks can also help you identify customer service icebergs.

An iceberg looks like a small issue on the surface, but a much larger and dangerous problem is hidden below the surface. For example, when the pages fell out of one of my books, I investigated the problem and discovered thousands of defective books had been shipped to retailers.

The author holding up a defective copy of his book, Service Failure.

How to do a customer service gemba walk

There are a few techniques that can make your gemba walk successful. Do a little bit of upfront planning, ask questions to approach the work with an open mind, and show respect to the employees doing the work.

Planning for a Gemba Walk

You don't need to do a lot of planning to prepare for a gemba walk, but a few simple steps will make the process much more useful.

  1. Clearly identify the objective. What are you trying to discover?

  2. Let people know you're coming.

These steps will help you get the cooperation and buy-in from the employees you observe. You'll learn a lot more, and get more forthright cooperation, if you avoid coming across as someone who is merely there to catch people doing it wrong.

I did a few things to prepare for my visit to the hotel.

First, I asked the CEO to let the president of the hotel division know what I would be doing, and that he had requested it. The president was a very hands-off leader, but I also knew he could easily get defensive. After all, the CEO was coming to me because the hotel division president had failed.

Second, I called the hotel parking manager. Fortunately, we already had a good relationship, so I was very candid about my project. I knew the contract was in jeopardy and it was my goal to help him save it.

Finally, I reviewed the mystery shopping audits. I wanted to make sure the mystery shoppers were looking at the same service standards we were training our valets to perform. (They were.)

Ask Questions

Keep and open mind and ask questions to reveal insights that you might otherwise miss. Resist jumping to conclusions. Even if you see an employee doing something wrong, asking why they're doing it can be revealing.

I asked a lot of questions when I observed the hotel valets. I even asked them why they were goofing off when I saw them get bored and start to stand in a circle and talk to each other. It wasn't an accusatory question— I really wanted to know.

The valets were very forthcoming about the reasons for this. The valets found it hard to stay focused and alert when nothing was happening. Most were young and inexperienced, and they enjoyed an easy camaraderie with each other, so goofing off was almost second nature.

They also had some suggestions for improvement.

  • Provide small tasks they could do in between guests.

  • Rotate positions during slow times to reduce boredom.

  • Share the results of the mystery shopper audits.

That last point was key.

The manager hadn't been sharing the audit reports with the valets. They knew the hotel's general manager was unhappy, but they had no idea the contract was at risk. And they didn't realize that losing the contract would mean losing their jobs.

Show Respect

Employees will generally be candid about how they do their job if you ask honest questions with an intention to help. Keep in mind that you're there to help them, not catch them doing something wrong.

With the hotel valets, I was careful not to come off as some corporate guy who was there to catch them doing wrong. I tried to convey to each one that I appreciated the work they were doing and wanted to help.

It was also important to show respect to the manager and the supervisor. Once we discovered the valets needed more information about the mystery shopper audits, I asked the manager what he thought could be done.

His idea was brilliant.

Additional Resources

Here are a few resources to help you plan your first gemba walk.

This short video provides some nice visual examples.


The CEO requested training, but I didn’t do any.

What I did was work with the valets, the valet manager, and the valet supervisor to understand the root cause of the problems. I then facilitated their ideas for improving service and keeping the contract.

The valets had made several suggestions for improvement. The valet manager tied it all together with a simple tactic.

He cleared a bulletin board in the parking office and mounted a piece of string horizontally across the board. Then he put a sign on the string that read "85%" to represent the target score for mystery shopper reports.

The manager began posting each mystery shopper report on the board as it came in. 

  • If it passed, it went above the string.

  • If it scored below 85 percent, he posted it below the string.

The valets immediately got the message. 

Nobody wanted to let the team down and fail an audit. They encouraged each other to stay sharp and implemented their ideas. The manager gave praise and recognition with each passing audit, and offered coaching each time an audit was failed.

The hotel's general manager was very happy with the results by the end of the month.

Graph showing the improvement of mystery shopper audit scores after one month.

My CEO was happy, too. He didn’t really care whether or not we did training. His goal was to save the contract, which is exactly what the gemba walk helped us do.

Cover image of Getting Service Right book.

In my book, Getting Service Right, I detail a number of service failures where the solution wasn't immediately obvious. The book also captures candid responses from employees:

  • Why an employee lied to customers.

  • Why an employee deliberately provided poor service.

  • What an employee really wanted to do when confronted by an angry customer.

Finding the solution to these problems often requires a gemba walk.

Lessons From The Overlook: Go and See the Problem

Note: Lessons from The Overlook is a monthly update on lessons learned from owning a vacation rental property in the Southern California mountain town of Idyllwild. It's a hands-on opportunity to apply some of the techniques I advise my clients to use. You can find past updates here.

Our property manager called with a problem.

The Overlook was too hot. A summer heat wave caused temperatures to soar in Idyllwild and our cabin doesn't have air conditioning. Even at night, the house was still hotter than 80 degrees. 

One group of guests asked to move to a different property. Our property manager convinced them to stay after she managed to borrow a couple of portable air conditioners for the weekend. We weren't so lucky with another group of guests who wanted to stay at The Overlook, but decided to book another property when they learned about the heat.

My wife, Sally, and I were presented with three options:

  1. Spend $800 to install window-mounted air conditioners.
  2. Spend several thousand to install central air conditioning.
  3. Do nothing and accept a decline in revenue until the weather cooled.

We decided to investigate the issue before jumping to solutions. In the end, we identified a great solution that cost just $119.27.


The Problem With Solutions

It's instinctive to skip the investigation and jump to solutions.

That can sometimes be a liability, especially if the solution is offered without first observing the problem and identifying the root cause.

One of my favorite examples comes from a client who hired me to train his employees on phone skills. He felt they weren't friendly at times and assumed that training would fix the problem. 

I spent just 15 minutes talking to his customer service team and found the real issue. Customers sometimes had to wait on hold for as long as 30 minutes during peak times. This caused employees to rush through calls which inevitably created a perception that they were brusque and unfriendly.

A simple adjustment to align the schedule with call volume eliminated the long wait times. Employees were suddenly friendly with no training required.

When we applied this principle to The Overlook, it's hard to choose from three crummy options without first understanding why the place is too hot. 


Go and See

There's a concept in process improvement called Gemba. 

It's a Japanese term that means, "the real place." In business, you can often solve problems by taking what's called "a gemba walk" to go and see the issue first-hand. This often reveals unexpected causes and solutions.

Sally is fanatical about this. She's a process improvement expert whose Twitter handle is @gembagirl. I've learned a lot from her about the value of observation.

Fortunately, we had a long-planned visit to The Overlook in July that allowed us to experience the heat first-hand. 

The first thing we noticed was the ceiling fan in the family room. It was set in winter mode, which draws air up and pushes warm air down. It was actually heating the room rather than cooling it!

The fan should have been set to summer mode, which pushes cool air down. I see how this could easily be missed. You look at the fan spinning like crazy and naturally assume it's doing its job. I only realized the problem when I stood directly under the fan and felt the warm air.

The room instantly started feeling cooler once the fan was on summer mode. We'll be adding this item to our inspection checklist so it doesn't happen again!

Next, we opened up windows to let the cool air in. The night air was a cool 65 degrees when we arrived at 9:30pm. Inside it was 82, so the cool air could help lower the inside temperature if we could find a way to pull the cool air in.

Sally and I once lived in Massachusetts without air conditioning, so we've experienced hot summers. We learned that a window fan can cool a room better than an oscillating fan, because it pulls cool air into the room at night and can be set to expel warm air during the day. So we spent $119.27 at Home Depot to purchase three units of a highly-rated model. Home Depot has a generous 90-day return policy, so buying the fans ahead of time wasn't a risk.

The fans have three big advantages over window-mountained air conditioners. First, they're much less expensive. Second, they can quickly be taken out of the window when the weather turns cold. And third, they're much less unsightly than bulky window box ac units.

We installed the fans in three of the four bedrooms and they instantly worked! The master suite is on the bottom floor and has twin ceiling fans, so was already much cooler than the rest of the house.

Just one hour later, the temperature inside The Overlook was a pleasant 70 degrees.


Check Again

It would be easy to think the problem was solved.

As I wrote in this post, you can learn a lot by experiencing what your customers experience. We decided to keep an eye on the thermostat throughout our stay.

It was good that we did. The temperature started to rise steadily at mid-morning, even with the fans running. By mid-afternoon, it was back up to 80 degrees in the house. It was tough to keep the cabin cool when the air outside was warm. 

That's when we noticed the sun pouring in from our large windows. We had closed the blinds on the lower windows, but there was still a lot of heat coming through the upper windows. I closed those blinds, too, and the temperature began to cool again.

Photo credit: joniephoto

Photo credit: joniephoto

Now we hoped the problem was really solved, but there was only one real way to check. We had to hear from actual guests.

Sally and I waited anxiously to hear from our property manager the next time we had guests booked for the weekend. We wanted to get guest feedback on the temperature.

Good news! Our solutions worked!