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How agile team leaders can walk the gemba walk in a remote world


A new year often stirs reflection of the last, and I find myself in that position. Late last year, Adaptavist had the honor of hosting several friends and customers for discussions on the topic of agile delivery which followed from our Champion Hour webinar on Jira Align and the agility Gap. As the host of the sessions, I was truly blown away by the openness and honesty of our audience.

Via Zoom from living rooms and home offices around the globe, participants shared stories about how 2020 made them think differently about existing processes, tools, and practices. We heard tales of how 2020 has created new and unexpected silos; required urgent reprioritisation of features based on new customer needs; and most importantly, how the mental health of teams took an urgent priority above all else as, without a team, there is no delivery. Period.

Days after the conversations it struck me that these sessions identified an aspect of agile that isn’t often talked about but is critical to agile delivery: The gemba walk.

The word gemba originates in Japan and means ‘the actual place.’ Within agile frameworks, gemba is defined as a process in which the product team observes how stakeholders execute steps and specific activities in their operational value streams to better identify opportunities for relentless improvement. The tl;dr of this: talk to your teams personally and find out how their world is working.

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"Talk to your teams personally and find out how their world is working."

In a pre-2020 world, gemba walks ideally were done in person. But now leaders have the added challenge of understanding how their teams work together while in isolation. It’s not just one work floor to observe, it’s each individual’s home office or ad-hoc work area. And that takes time.

So, how do we foster the connection that drives continuous improvement in our remotely-distributed reality? Here are a few approaches that came out of our sessions:

Lead with your ears

This is deeper than listening. Author Daniel Pink notes that leaders who ‘agitate’ (a positive term in this context) are leaders who help teams understand context and motivation so that the team will want to make a change to do things differently. These leaders hear their teams’ issues and concerns, and as a result, tailor their messages to support what they’ve heard.

If a manager simply tells teams what they want them to do and how they should do it, that is considered an ‘irritation’; which is not the behavior of a leader and can create more damage than good—especially during times of team isolation.

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Create psychological SAFe®ty

Psychological SAFe®ty is key, and dovetails into the above idea regarding leadership listening and tailoring interactions. The aim is to create an air of ‘it’s okay and we’re in this together.’ When teams feel SAFe® to speak up, deliver an unpopular message, fail, etc., they flourish. This culture shift can not exist however, without leaders who trust and respect their team.

Avoid managing from a silo

Even before our current period of isolation, leaders and managers have all been guilty at some point of making decisions that affect many from a room by themselves (or with one or two other people involved).

In short, decisions can not be made alone since humans generally do not have a good understanding of how others will react. We are optimistic about our own assumptions, and unaware of our own blind spots. Daniel Pink touches on this too by explaining the Fundamental Attribution Error, which says: “When we try to predict people’s behavior and explain people’s behavior we almost always overweight the importance of their personality and underweight the importance of context and the situation they are in.”

The conclusion of our Q&A sessions was that leading remotely-distributed agile teams is a challenge, but is absolutely doable. The gemba walk just looks a bit different now as it’s two-dimensional. But by leading with their ears, nurturing a healthy work environment, and including the teams in key decisions that affect their day to day, successful leaders keep their teams engaged with meaningful work, which is the fuel for agile delivery in 2020 and beyond.

Daniel Pink quotes and thoughts are from his Masterclass, Daniel Pink Teaches Sales & Persuasion

About the author: Jennifer Eolin is a Technical Consultant who believes in empowering organisations to make the 'people, process, product' principle a reality. She regards 'process' as more than a document but as the basis for an organisation's culture and future.

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