Observe with purpose

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on October 22, 2009 · 7 comments

2319232119_b5789587f3.jpgDirect observation has been an under appreciated aspect of lean for most of its life. It has gotten a lot more attention in recent years, unfortunately this is thanks in part to the use of jargon, such as gemba and genchi genbutsu. For those of you who know me, you know I hate jargon. It makes ideas inaccessible and confusing. But with this jargon, more people have gotten interested. Even The Economist picked up on the concept:

This is a Japanese phrase meaning “go and see for yourself”, which is a central pillar of the Toyota Way, the famous management system adopted by the Japanese car company. Genchi genbutsu is sometimes referred to as “get your boots on”, which has a similar cadence and meaning. It is not dissimilar to the idea behind management by walking about (MBWA), an all-too-briefly popular American version of the same principle.

First there is a big difference between direction observation and MBWA. The difference is having a framework for observation. MBWA without a framework for how you digest what you see is just Management by Wandering Aimlessly.

Observation should have a purpose. It is not enough to be “at the gemba”. Before an individual or team tries to practice observation, they should have a reason that they are doing so. It is often defined as a problem statement, gap, or issue. The observation then centers around what I need to learn about that situation that I need to go and gather the ground truth about. In one organization they sent all their engineers to the floor for the first two hours of every day. However, they failed to define the purpose of this “gemba” time. The result was that the engineers stood around in the factory aisles chitchatting instead of standing in an office hallway. Clearly, this is not the result they wanted. Just ask yourself before going to observe “what are we trying to understand?” and you will avoid this mistake.

1 Riegholt Hilbrands October 22, 2009 at 7:18 am

In my view there are two reasons why no-one should try to go-and-see without a purpose.

The first one is that having ‘a problem statement, gap, or issue’ aims you’re oservation. How can you recognize that you found something of value, if you’re not sure what to watch for.

The second on is respect for people. How doe we expect someone to feel if we just go over to his workplce and just watch (stare) ?
I remember from my days on the shopfloor in several factories how I hated the ‘suits’ that just walked in, watched and left.
To be honest, I did my part of Management by Wandering Around, until I was confronted quite clearly “What are you doing here, anyway ?”. As I could not answer I stopped wandering that day.

Anyone without a clear and known purpose, please leave the gemba!

2 Jamie Flinchbaugh October 22, 2009 at 5:26 pm

Thanks Riegholt. I agree. I think you do a great disservice to those in the workforce if you don’t know why you are there. Observation is not staring.


3 Ot Chan Dy October 22, 2009 at 9:18 pm

That is right, Jamie! We study about the labor losses and crew saturation, so we sent somebody out to observe and the result was frustration among people and shopfloor workers feel very disappointed and get angry. We have to be sure what we are really like to see and be careful of method we use to observe, especially people.

4 Matt Wrye October 23, 2009 at 3:36 pm

I agree. I am a person who has always liked to have data compiled in spreadsheets…….even from my observations. But as I watch managers I am coaching, I see that they use that data as problem solving. While it is good to have historical data, I am trying to pull the safety net out from under them and turn off the document system. If you want to know what is wrong, then go and observe it.

5 Jon Miller October 23, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Very nice post Jamie.

6 Andrew Brown October 24, 2009 at 4:53 am

Thanks Jamie.
An interesting post on an often under appreciated technique of fact gathering. My understanding of Genchi Genbutsu is that it’s about going to the source, to gather the facts in order to make the right decision.
When solving problems we can gather lots of data for analysis, but going to the gemba to gather facts helps us to confirm & contextualise the data. This “targeted” observation helps us to understand the other factors that could be impacting on the processes we are studying.
One further point on Management by Wandering Aimlessly. I believe this could be categorised as Muda (waste associated with overproduction). If the wandering around is not required, then it is a resource (time/effort) that could be apply to another part of our work.

7 Jamie Flinchbaugh October 24, 2009 at 8:13 am

Thanks for the comments everyone.

MBWA without a purpose would absolutely be waste. It would really be overprocessing – do more than the customer requires, because it contributes nothing to the organization or to value.

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